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Senator calls on FTC to tackle social-net privacy

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York expresses alarm over Facebook's ongoing privacy changes, suggesting that the Federal Trade Commission needs to get involved in regulating social-network privacy.

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York has come out swinging against new announcements by Facebook that modify how much member data is shared with third-party companies, suggesting that the Federal Trade Commission needs to promptly address the issue of social-network privacy.

A press release from Schumer's office announced that he has written to the FTC to ask that the agency "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...(and) provide guidelines for use of private information and prohibit access without user permission."

This was prompted by the new products and services unveiled by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the social network's annual developer conference, which took place in San Francisco last week. The big showcase at F8 was the "Open Graph," which aims to forge firmer channels of communication between multiple social-networking sites. In conjunction, Facebook rolled out something called "Instant Personalization," which lets users easily share the bulk of their personal profile information with third-party companies.

According to Schumer, frequent changes to social-networking privacy policies can be extremely confusing for users, and that the FTC currently does not regulate this at all.

Sen. Charles Schumer Charles Schumer's Senate page

"Hundreds of millions of people use social-networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter every day," Schumer said in a press release. "These sites have helped reconnect old friends, allow families from far away to stay in touch, and created new friendships; overall they provide a great new way to communicate. As these sites become more and more popular, however, it's vitally important that safeguards are in place that provide users with control over their personal information to ensure they don't receive unwanted solicitations. At the same time, social-networking sites need to provide easy-to-understand disclosures to users on how information they submit is being shared."

Facebook public policy representative Andrew Noyes replied to a request for comment, saying via e-mail that "we were surprised by Senator Schumer's comments and look forward to sitting down with him and his staff to clarify."

"Last week, we announced several new products and features designed to enhance personalization and promote social activity across the Web," Noyes' e-mail statement read. "None of these changes removed or reduced people's control over their information and several offered even greater controls. For example, we announced a new tool to give users much greater ability to restrict the information they share with applications and third-party Web sites. We introduced new ways for Web sites to let Facebook offer personalization without the need for any user information to be shared with the site itself."

On the "open graph" product that is currently being piloted with Microsoft, Yelp, and Pandora, Noyes said that they "were carefully chosen, reviewed, and are contractually required to respect users' privacy preferences. Additionally, they are required to provide an easy and prominent method for users to opt out directly from their Web site and delete user data if users do choose to opt out."

Critics of the new program say that it should be opt-in, not opt-out.

Schumer's press release explains that "if the FTC believes it does not have the tools or authority to issue guidelines on privacy disclosures, he would be willing to offer legislation."

Is this the last straw? Security advocates and the occasional lawmaker have been complaining about Facebook's continual changes to its privacy controls for ages now, and yet the social network continues to forge ahead. It does, however, make changes here and there: late last year, controversy over Facebook's decision to make users' friends lists public resulted in a complaint to the FTC and ultimately a modification on Facebook's behalf.

Canadian privacy officials have already been on Facebook's case for some time now, but U.S. lawmakers' focus has tended to be on child safety rather than general privacy.