Warning Shot for Social Network German Minister Launches Attack on Facebook
Plans by Facebook to provide personal data to third parties without asking users for permission are being criticized by a prominent member of the German government. In an open letter to the social networking giant's CEO, Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner threatens to delete her profile if the California company doesn't do more to protect its members' privacy.
Facebook, which started as a modest student network, has now brought together a significant part of the Internet-connected world. The Web site has 400 million registered members, including 7.5 million Germans and hundreds of celebrities. One of them is Isle Aigner. But now Germany's minister for agriculture and consumer protection, who is part of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet, is threatening to delete her Facebook profile.
In an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE that will be released publicly later on Monday, Aigner sharply criticizes the social networking company's recent decision to collect "general information" from users and to provide that information to third parties in the future.
"I was astonished to discover that, despite the concerns of users and severe criticism from consumer activists, Facebook would like to relax data protection regulations on the network even further," the minister, who is a member of the conservative Christian Social Union, wrote in her letter to Palo Alto, California-based Facebook CEO Zuckerberg.
In its recently updated privacy agreement, Facebook stated that it would begin providing general information about users to third sites -- "previously vetted operators of Web sites and applications." The company wrote: "In order to provide you with useful social experiences off of Facebook, we occasionally need to provide General Information about you to pre-approved third party Web sites and applications that use Platform at the time you visit them (if you are still logged in to Facebook)."
Among the pieces of data the company is considering sharing is a person's name, gender, profile picture or current location. The data would be shared automatically, and users would not be asked for their permission -- although Facebook will offer an opt-out.
'Decisions Like This Will Not Engender Trust'
Facebook officials are calling the new language a proposal, and in recent days the company has invited people with profiles on the social network site to provide their own input. On Saturday, the company thanked users for their input and said it would take their comments into consideration and inform them of the next steps it intends to take.
But Germany's consumer protection minister is calling for concrete and swift steps to be taken by the company. "Private information must remain private -- I think that I speak for many Internet users in this respect," Aigner wrote to 25-year-old Zuckerberg. "Unfortunately, Facebook does not respect this wish, a fact that was confirmed in a recent study by the German consumer organization Stiftung Warentest. Facebook fares badly in this study. Facebook was graded as 'poor' in respect of user-data privacy and user rights. Facebook also refused to provide information on data security -- it was awarded a '5' (=poor) in this category as well."
Aigner said it was all the more astounding "that Facebook is not willing to eliminate the existing shortcomings regarding data protection but is instead going even further." She added: "Decisions such as this will not engender trust in an enterprise in the long term."
"Enterprises such as Facebook bear a particular responsibility due to the fact that users, in particular young users, are not aware that their personal profiles are to be used for commercial purposes," Aigner wrote. She said she would terminate her Facebook account if the company doesn't "alter its business policy and eliminate the glaring shortcomings."
German Government Challenges Internet Giants
Aigner's criticism of Facebook follows attacks by the minister on Internet giants Google, Microsoft and Apple in recent months. She said those firms hold extensive amounts of personal data on Web users and should reveal what they know about people.
She has also taken Google's Street View to task, telling newsweekly Focus in February that the comprehensive photographing of German streets for the Internet service was "nothing less than a million-fold violation of the private sphere."
"I reject this form of exposure. There is not a secret service in existence that would collect photos so unabashedly," she told the magazine.
She said in her letter to Zuckerberg that she uses the Internet every day professionally and privately and said social networks were "an enrichment and it is difficult to imagine our lives without them." Aigner has had a Facebook profile since 2009 and has some 1,900 Facebook friends.