Facebook Agrees to Change Friend Finder in Response to German Privacy Complaint

In response to official complaints from German officials concerned about protecting user data, Facebook will change its Friend Finder tool to increase transparency about how the site uses imported contacts. However, it appears that many of the requested changes are already live, and it’s unclear whether any additional changes will only apply to German users or the site’s entire population. The move could also encourage more governments to levy restrictive privacy legislation against Facebook.

The frequent prompts on the home page and new user flow for users to upload their contacts through “Find Friends” links have helped Facebook grow to over 500 million users. Uploaded contacts aren’t shared, but are saved so user can send them invitations to join the site, and power friend suggestions that increase user retention by facilitating interconnection.

These suggestions and invites caused privacy concerns, leading German officials to initiate “proceedings against Facebook.” Still, Facebook doesn’t send invitations to imported contacts automatically or without permission as German online news source Spiegel implies.

The site has agreed to provide users “transparent control over the addresses he or she imports”, and to “alert users that they should only send invitations to those contacts who they know personally and who, in their opinion, want to receive such an invitation”, according to Johannes Caspar of Hamburg’s data protection authority.

Facebook already offers an “Invite History” page which lets users manage and remove imported contacts, an informational dialog about how contacts will be used, and an unsubscribe button on invitation emails, but this was not sufficient for the officials.

Additionally, officials are requiring that “the non-Facebook member who receives the invitation must likewise be informed why he or she received the mail.” To adhere, Facebook might include explaining that the address was imported through the Friend Finder tool. Also, since users might have thousands of email contacts who they don’t know personally, Facebook might have to make sending invitations opt-in, while now it defaults to sending invites to all imported contacts.

Facebook and Government Intervention

Friend Finder landed Facebook in the news earlier this year when it butted heads with Google over whether the social network could import contacts from Google’s Gmail if it didn’t allow users to export the addresses of friends. It also released the Impact tool, linked to on the home page under “Track your invites”, which made inviting friends seem like a game in order to encourage the viral spread of the service.

Facebook has clearly billed its Friend Finder as a tool that assists users when it’s also crucial to its own growth and successes. Since Facebook is already in compliance with many of the requests, changes shouldn’t immediately cause a significant hiccup in expansion.

This isn’t the first time Facebook has had to answer to a government inquiry. A probe from Canada’s privacy commissioner into how data is shared with third-party applications led Facebook to create the explicit permissions system and a predecessor to the modern applications, games, and websites privacy dashboard.

Without a serious competitor in the social networking market, government intervention could be the biggest threat to Facebook’s longevity. These types of flaps raise it’s profile amongst lawmakers, which Facebook is countering through an increased presence in Washington.

Germany’s move could inspire other government agencies to seek feedback from their constituents over whether to impose limits on the site’s actions. Facebook should consider expanding privacy and security messaging, and toning down controversial uses of user data to preempt farther reaching legislation that could stymie future growth efforts.

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