Facebook's recent decision to share personal info raises major privacy concerns for millions of Americans
April 28, 2010
In a letter to Facebook CEO, several United States Senators are pressing for Facebook's Opt-Out Policy to be changed to Opt-In so the default setting will keep users' information private. Tuesday, U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Al Franken (D-MN) and Mark Begich (D-AK) urged Facebook, the online social-networking giant, to fix its private policy to block users' personal information from being accessed by third parties without the users' consent. The senators announced they have sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg urging the company to revisit its decision, made last week, to provide select third party websites with personal information that users previously had the ability to keep private.
The senators said the recent changes by Facebook fundamentally alter the relationship between users and the social networking site. Previously, users had the ability to determine what information they wished to share publicly and what information they wanted to keep private. In their letter, the senators urged Facebook to adjust its policy so that users' information stays private by default and can only be shared with third parties if the user opts in.
"Alaskans' privacy is guaranteed in our State Constitution and we object to companies who disrespect that right. I hope Facebook heeds our call and will work harder to engage their users before making such broad privacy changes," Begich said.
"Sites like Facebook have revolutionized the way we stay connected and they provide a great new way to communicate. But as these sites become more and more popular, it's vital that users stay in control of their personal information so they don't receive unwanted solicitations. The default policy should be one of privacy, and users should have to choose to share their information, not the other way around. We hope Facebook will take this simple step to make sure that no one's personal information will be made public without them fully aware and consenting," Schumer said.
"Online social networking sites are a great way to share information with friends, keep in touch with family, make business contacts and disseminate all types of information. They are a growing source for news and information," Bennet said. "But people have a right to know what they are signing up for. They have a right to know how their personal information is being used. And they should be given a real opportunity to protect their privacy," Bennet said.
"Every day, more and more Minnesotans, young and old, are joining social networking sites like Facebook. People give these sites their personal information because they assume it will be used to connect them with their friends. But Facebook is taking its users' information, giving it to third parties, and letting them keep it indefinitely. I'm asking Facebook to better protect its users data and make sure that users know who is getting it," Franken said.
Under new policies announced earlier this month, Facebook users must go through a complicated and confusing opt-out process to keep private information from being shared with third party websites. Additionally, Facebook has also created a new system whereby 'interests' listed by users on their personal profiles are automatically aggregated and shared as massive web pages. Users previously had the ability to keep this information private if they chose. These new common interest pages are a gold mine of marketing data that could use by used for spam and potentially scammers seeking to peddle their wares.
The senators noted that Facebook has 400 million users worldwide and a vast trove of personal information is stored on its network, yet there is little guidance on what social networking sites can and cannot do with that information. Earlier this week, Schumer expressed concern to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about the relative lack of disclosure to users about the sharing of their private information. Schumer asked the FTC to examine the privacy disclosures of social networking sites to ensure that they are not misleading or that they fail to fully disclose the extent to which they share information. He also urged the FTC to provide guidelines for use of private information and prohibit access without user permission.
While at one time Social networking sites like Facebook were widely seen as ways for teenagers to communicate, as of January 2010 the largest age group of Facebook users are 35-54 year olds, representing 29% of all users. Additionally, the fastest growing age group of Facebook users are those 55 and over.
The text of the senators' letter to Facebook appears below:
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