By MATT O'BRIEN
The Associated Press
If you're one of Facebook's more than 2 billion users, are you any better off now than you were before the Federal Trade Commission imposed new privacy restrictions and a $5 billion fine on the company this week?
Facebook's settlement with the FTC after the agency's yearlong investigation provides a detailed account of the company's sneaky behavior and secures a handful of new safeguards, many of them backward-looking. They limit how Facebook shares some data with third-party app developers, circumscribe the collection of phone numbers for advertising purposes and require "clear and conspicuous" notice before people's photos and videos are subjected to facial recognition technology.
But privacy experts say there's little that will slow Facebook's harvesting of vast amounts of sensitive personal information. That data is key to how the tech company makes a profit through targeted advertising - and Facebook has a spotty record of protecting it.
"It will take us quite a while to figure out whether this will have any effect on how Facebook does its business," said Michelle Richardson, director of privacy and data for the Center for Democracy and Technology. "These are small, incremental changes. There's no easy advice to give individuals about any switch they can flip to make the privacy risks go away."
Richardson said it's possible that accountability measures imposed on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who must personally certify compliance, may give the company pause before launching new services that could threaten users' privacy or data security.
But she said the FTC's order lacks firm rules that could have guided how Facebook uses and shares the information it collects. That's in part because, unless Congress follows through with proposals to enact a comprehensive federal privacy law, the FTC has little authority to police online privacy concerns, she said.
The deal also absolves Facebook of any known consumer-protection claims prior to June 12, effectively wiping the slate clean of past privacy violations.
Yale Privacy Lab researcher Sean O'Brien said FTC's limited penalties will enable Facebook to publicly say it is changing course while maintaining an illusion of privacy. It may bolster the ranks of privacy-focused managers and executives, he said, and could add new menu items to the platform's already confusing settings, "which most users never change anyway."
The company has also made a public push for improving the privacy of conversations on its WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram chatting services, but O'Brien said it won't give up spying on far more valuable information about users' online behavior and social lives.
"Facebook has surveillance at the core of its business model, which is the monetization of data profiles about humans and about human social interaction," he said. "Far too many companies are making money off of Facebook and the data economy in general for there to be fundamental change."