U.S. Senator: Social Networking Needs Privacy Guidelines

April 26, 2010

by Cristian Salazar, Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said the online social network's latest features would make it easier for other websites to share connections and to personalize their content for its millions of users, but a U.S. senator thinks they could do harm.

Sen. Charles Schumer said Sunday he has written to the Federal Trade Commission expressing his concern about the new Facebook features and has called on the agency to craft guidelines for how social networking websites can use and share personal information about their users.

In his letter, Schumer wrote that changes to Facebook's privacy policies "have limited the ability of users to control the information they share and keep private."

"These changes can adversely affect users and, currently, there is little guidance on what social networking sites can and cannot do and how disclosure is provided," he wrote in the letter, dated Sunday.

Schumer, D-N.Y., said the problem applies to other social networking sites as well. He offered to introduce legislation if the FTC, whose missions include policing anticompetitive business practices and protecting consumers, felt it needed additional authority to create such guidelines.

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said the company was "surprised" by the senator's comments and looked forward to "sitting down with him and his staff to clarify."

He said the new products and features, announced on April 21, were designed to "enhance personalization and promote social activity across the Web."

"None of these changes removed or reduced people's control over their information, and several offered even greater controls," he said in an e-mailed statement.

Among the new features were plug-ins allowing partner sites to add to their pages "like" buttons, which users can click to automatically notify their friends of their approval. For instance, a user visiting a movie site can click on a "like" button to mark a preference for a film, which then appears on that user's Facebook profile.

Another feature is described on the site as controlling "how select partners can personalize their features" with public information about the user.

Noyes called this a "small pilot program" with three "respected partners," and he said it is aimed at providing "additional personalization on their sites."

"These partners were carefully chosen, reviewed, and are contractually required to respect users' privacy preferences," he wrote.

But Facebook has sometimes blundered when it comes to the privacy of its users. In 2007, it introduced a tool called Beacon, which automatically broadcast users' activities on other websites on Facebook. After protests from its users, Facebook first agreed to let people opt out of the feature, then removed it entirely.

In announcing the latest features at a Web and software conference, Zuckerberg tried to emphasize that Facebook's new tools wouldn't intrude on users' privacy. He said he expects the new tools to generate revenue for other websites and to give Facebook a better understanding of its users' interests.