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Senators Tackle Facebook Privacy Settings

CNBC.com

There's probably no better sign of Facebook's reach and power than the fact that Senators are cracking down on its policies.

The issues at hand are some changes Facebook has made regarding its users "publicly available data."

Today four democratic senators — Charles Schumer, Michael Bennet, Mark Begich, and Al Franken — wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking him to review the company's policies. They say they "look forward to the FTC examining the issue," and they're asking the FTC to get involved. (See full letter below)

Also today, Senator Charles Schumer has announced that he's appealing to the FTC to ask that it "examine the privacy disclosures of social-networking sites to ensure they are not misleading or fail to fully disclose the extent to which they share information."

This isn't the first time Facebook has been attacked about its privacy controls. But the 400 million user social network has often explained — as it does in its letter below — that it's certainly in its best interest to protect its users privacy. The last time there was a spate of criticism of Facebook's privacy settings the company did something pretty unprecedented — it asked its users to submit their suggestions for privacy controls, then asked people to vote on them. This was truly open-source policy-making.

And it seemed to work.

The Senators are concerned about some of the services Zuckerberg unveiled at Facebook's annual developers conference last week. As I blogged from the event, Zuckerberg talked extensively about the "Open Graph" — seamless data transference and communication between web sites across the web. From what I understand, Facebook will allow its users to access their friend information from other websites without those websites themselves being able to see your personal information.

Here's the Senators' full letter and below it you'll find Facebook's response.

April 27, 2010

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

We are writing to express our concern regarding recent changes to the Facebook privacy policy and the use of personal data on third party websites. While Facebook provides a valuable service to users by keeping them connected with friends and family and reconnecting them with long-lost friends and colleagues, the expansion of Facebook – both in the number of users and applications – raises new concerns for users who want to maintain control over their information. The following three changes have raised concerns:

1. Publicly available data. Facebook’s expansion of publicly available data to include a user’s current city, hometown, education, work, likes, interests, and friends has raised concerns for users who would like to have an opt-in option to share this profile information. Through the expanded use of “connections,” Facebook now obligates users to make publicly available certain parts of their profile that were previously private. If the user does not want to connect to a page with other users from their current town or university, the user will have that information deleted altogether from their profile. We appreciate that Facebook allows users to type this information into the “Bio” section of their profiles, and privatize it, but we believe that users should have more control over these very personal and very common data points. These personal details should remain private unless a user decides that he/she would like to make a connection and share this information with a community.

2. Third party data storage. Previously, Facebook allowed third-party advertisers to store profile data for 24 hours. We are concerned that recent changes allow that data to be stored indefinitely. We believe that Facebook should reverse this policy, or at a minimum require users to opt in to allowing third parties to store data for more than 24 hours.

3. Instant personalization. We appreciate that Facebook is attempting to integrate the functionality of several popular websites, and that Facebook has carefully selected its initial partners for its new “instant personalization” feature. We are concerned, however, that this feature will now allow certain third party partners to have access not only to a user’s publicly available profile information, but also to the user’s friend list and the publicly available information about those friends. As a result of the other changes noted above, this class of information now includes significant and personal data points that should be kept private unless the user chooses to share them. Although we are pleased that Facebook allows users to opt-out of sharing private data, many users are unaware of this option and, moreover, find it complicated and confusing to navigate. Facebook should offer users the ability to opt-in to sharing such information, instead of opting out, and should make the process for doing so more clear and coherent.

We hope that Facebook will stand by its goal of creating open and transparent communities by working to ensure that its policies protect the sensitive personal biographical data of its users and provide them with full control over their personal information. We look forward to the FTC examining this issue, but in the meantime we believe Facebook can take swift and productive steps to alleviate the concerns of its users. Providing opt-in mechanisms for information sharing instead of expecting users to go through long and complicated opt-out processes is a critical step towards maintaining clarity and transparency.

Sincerely,

U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY)
U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO)
U.S. Senator Mark Begich (D-AK)
U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-MN)

Facebook's response:

April 27, 2010 [transmitted by e-mail]
The Honorable Charles Schumer
313 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Schumer:

Thank you for your tireless advocacy on so many important issues, including online privacy. The issue is something Facebook takes very seriously. Indeed, Facebook is designed to give people the tools to control their information online and our highest priority is to keep and build the trust of the more than 400 million people who use our service. These goals were central in the development of the new products we announced last week.

Specifically, these new products and features are designed to enhance personalization and promote social activity across the Internet while continuing to give users unprecedented control over what information they share, when they want to share it, and with whom. All of Facebook’s products interact with a user’s consent.

We look forward to meeting with your staff soon to explain how the collective changes we announced last week will result in more control for users, not less. We also look forward to answering any questions and alleviating any concerns you or your colleagues may have.

We welcome a continued dialogue with you and others because we agree that scrutiny over the handling of personal data is needed as Internet users seek a more social and interactive experience. Facebook is a leader in transparency of our policies, notification to our users, and security of their data.

Regards,

Elliot Schrage
Vice President of Global Communications, Marketing and Public Policy Facebook

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  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.