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Senators Cross the Line on Facebook

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By Adam Ross May 4, 2010

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Four senators put a scare into Facebook last week, issuing a public letter lambasting the company for its privacy policy changes. Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg had to see the day coming; the changes to the privacy controls are somewhat hidden and confusing.

So, I understand the frustration from the four senators who felt inclined enough to get involved; Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Al Franken, D-Minn. They make valid points in the letter, calling Facebook "a valuable service to users," one that probably has a responsibility to give people firm control over their personal information. But asking for the Federal Communications Commission to get involved, and threatening legislation against the company? I'm afraid they crossed the line.

At the end of the day, you can keep up with people on Facebook without even sharing any personal information other than your name. It is possible. We all recognize when we throw our information into someone else's database that it in some small way it's no longer owned by us. This is just the reality of computing, and if you can't accept it, the Internet is probably not a place for you.

Now don't get me wrong; I don't want Facebook sharing my personal information with third-party sources any more then the next person. I'm careful about keeping my privacy settings up-to-date. And to that effect we all deserve simple, straight forward ways of keeping our privacy settings in order.

But even though Facebook corporate is a bit confusing, my Facebook friends always jump to help me. Whenever a privacy policy is changed, I usually get around 100 status updates from my friends telling me what the changes are and how to stop them from affecting my account.

To make the actual changes is always easy enough. If you take 5 minutes to read the directions and explanations carefully, it's really not much of a hoop jumping activity. And trust me, I know what jumping hoops is like -- I have cable television.

Full letter below:

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)

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