Face-Off: Zuckerberg Versus the ACLU [Updated]

Embroiled in another privacy flap, the social network giant hits hard against the civil liberties group — and the ACLU strikes back.


Today Facebook unveiled Places, its new “check in” feature designed to take on geo-location services such as Gowalla and Foursquare. Within hours of the announcement, the ACLU responded with a list of criticisms, chastising the social network for its lack of adequate privacy measures. Essentially, the ACLU charged Facebook with not giving users “full control” over the service.

Now Facebook has responded. Below is an open letter on the issue we just received from Facebook’s director of policy communications, Barry Schnitt, who says that all of these points were delivered to the ACLU before they published their warning.

In the statement, Facebook attempts to show just how much control users actually have over Places. The social network carefully explains the measures it has taken, contending that it’s offered explicit and accessible options to customize how much information is shared.


Facebook also calls the ACLU “misinformed” and says it ignores the lengths the company has gone through to ensure privacy. 

UPDATE: The squabble continues. The ACLU just posted another response to Facebook. The organization says it appreciates the privacy options currently available to Places users, but recommend three “straightforward steps” to provide further safeguards:

1. Limiting the default visibility of check-ins on your feed to “Friends Only.”
2. Allowing you to customize your check-in privacy.
3. Providing notice to you each time you are checked in by a friend.


So the back and forth continues, centered mainly on what default options are appropriate to a user’s privacy. The ACLU persists in its initial claim that “no” is not an option in Facebook: “If your friend tries to check-in for you, you have two choices: ‘Allow Check-Ins’ and ‘Not Now.’ Until you hit ‘Allow Check-Ins,’ you cannot be checked into a Place by a friend. But you are not given an option, like ‘No’ or ‘Don’t Allow,’ that would opt you out of Places. Instead, all you can do immediately is hit ‘Not Now,’ which just means ‘ask me again later.'”

Come on, Facebook, no means no!

Check out Facebook’s original response to the ACLU’s stance below:


Facebook Places sets a new standard for user control and privacy protection for location information. We’re disappointed that ACLU’s Northern California office ignores this and seems to generally misunderstand how the service works.

Specifically, no location information is associated with a person unless he or she explicitly chooses to become part of location sharing. No one can be checked in to a location without their explicit permission. Many third parties have applauded our controls, indicating that people have more protections using Facebook Places than other widely used location services available today …

Assertion: Facebook is rolling out “here now,” privacy later.
The facts: The current settings already enable you to easily make yourself visible to only a specific group of people on a Place page. All you need to do is turn off “Here Now” and set your “Places I check-in” control to the appropriate setting for the visibility you want. They are demanding that you, instead, customize two settings to get the same result. While we appreciate their feedback, they are just wrong that more complexity is better here …

Finally, it’s important to note that Here Now is not enabled if you’ve set your master privacy control to Friends of Friends or Friends or if you’ve customized your settings to be restrictive.

Assertion: Places data is on the move.
The facts: For those who choose to share their location, we offer additional controls that restrict the ability of applications to get information about their location. Applications you use must request and receive access through a clearly labeled and simple permissions dialog before accessing your check-ins.

Your friends can share your check-ins with applications and we feel there is the potential here to make really compelling social experiences. However, all you need to do is uncheck a box in your privacy settings under “Applications and Websites” to prevent this info from being shared by your friends. And, if you’ve already gone in and unchecked the other boxes, the Places I check-in box will be unchecked for you by default.

Assertion: In the world of Facebook Places, “no” is unfortunately not an option.
The facts: Again, this is misinformed. Every person on Facebook must agree before they check in or can be checked in to a place. Before you have agreed and someone tries to tag you, you are not associated with any location.

In addition, the story your friend tagged you in does not show up on your profile until you have agreed to allow it. Also, the message that lets you know a friend would like to check you in includes a link to Learn More, which explains how to stop getting these messages.

Finally, ACLU NC ignores the many protections built into the system—only confirmed friends can try to check you in, to tag you a friend must also check themselves in, you are notified every time someone tries to check you in, and you can easily remove any tag.


About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.