Ever since Facebook first became a worldwide phenomenon, every change they made resulted in a flurry of “BRING THE OLD FACEBOOK BACK!” type petitions and groups. None of those groups changed anything and users eventually adjusted and, perhaps, began to like new applications like the News Feed. However, the changes announced by CEO Mark Zuckerberg at last week’s Facebook F8 developer conference have some even more concerned than usual. It’s not surprising then that many people are again creating angry groups and sending angry letters. What is surprising though, is that four of the people writing a letter are US Senators.
The new changes are definitely pretty unsettling (again). While some new components seem innocuous like the “like” buttons that now appear on many sites including this one. (for example of how this changes things, go here to see every website your friends are now enjoying) some other changes show Facebook acting both cavalier and disrespectful of user’s privacy. One new component will share private user information with some select third-party partners, a move that users have to go into their account settings and manually turn off (we suggest you all read this Gawker piece on how). Even if these other sites and companies have nothing but the best of intentions with your data, it still means there is another place out there that hackers can get your information and the fact that users really need to read the fine print to opt out of this new venture is a pretty disingenuous of Facebook.
This is the stance of Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Michael Bennet (D-Col.), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), the four senators who penned the letter to Zuckerberg. The letter reads as follows:
“April 27, 2010
Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,
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.
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)”
This is clearly a serious matter. Facebook now has 400 million users and the idea that the private data of each and every one of them could be for sale is very scary.
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