Whether you want it there or not.  Creative commons licence, credit Kris Krug.

Whether you want it there or not.
Creative commons licence, credit Kris Krug.

Proposed changes to Facebook’s terms of use have raised privacy fears, as the website moves towards appropriating the personal details of its 1.15 billion users for commercial purposes without their direct consent.

Facebook is proposing an update of its policies in their amended ‘Statement of Rights and Responsibilities,’ specifically regarding the use of users’ Profile information, such as photos and personal details, to create advertisements to run on the site.

Sponsored Stories appear on the sidebars of Facebook users’ newsfeeds, informing them of friends who ‘Like’ certain pages. ‘Aicha Marhfour likes Dominos Pizza’ is an annoying intrusion into the browsing experience of my friends, but it works as an advertisement with a personalised touch. Facebook earned $234 million alone from Sponsored Stories from January 2011 to August 2012 according to available data.

The proposed changes come after Facebook recently settled a 2011 class action in a US District Court over its use of user details to generate ‘Sponsored Stories’ without permission.

In Fraley et al. v Facebook Inc., the five plaintiffs were awarded $20 million, with Facebook also agreeing to other protective measures regarding user privacy. Users would be allowed to opt-out from appearing in ads and minors could also be exempt from having their details used.

While Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan said in the statement accompanying the proposals, “We are proposing this update as part of a settlement in a court case relating to advertising,” the new changes to the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities arguably violate agreements reached in the case.

The Statement terms once read: “You can use your privacy settings to limit how your name and profile picture may be associated with commercial, sponsored or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us.”

It now removes any room for opting out: “You give permission to use your name, profile picture, content and information in connection with commercial, sponsored or related content…”

The amendments also propose that Facebook be able to create ‘Sponsored Stories’ for Pages or content which is not ‘Liked’ or endorsed by your friends or related to them in any way.

In another violation of the Order from Fraley, minors are not protected by the amendments. The Statement decrees that: “If you are under the age of 18… you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardian has also agreed to the terms of the section.” In Australia, the age of majority – and so consent — is 18.

The concept of implied consent as codified by the amended Statement has been criticised as it gives Facebook an unfettered ability to generate ads and Sponsored Stories using personal content without user permission.

“Facebook is now claiming the default setting is they can use everyone’s name and image for advertising and commercial purposes, including those of minors, without their consent,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The New York Times. “Red lights are going off in the privacy world.”

A letter of complaint to the Federal Trade Commission signed by six privacy advocacy groups criticized the proposed changes and called on the FTC to take against against the website.

“The Federal Trade Commission must act now to protect the interests of Facebook users,” the letter said. “The right of a person to control the use of their image for commercial purposes is the cornerstone of modern privacy law.”

Facebook has invited users to leave feedback on the proposed changes despite removing users’ rights to vote on any new changes to the site late last year.