Facebook Takes Fire From Senators Over Privacy

Four senators have sent a joint letter to Facebook asking that it make changes to the way it handles privacy, the latest salvo of privacy-related criticism to be directed at the social network. One of them, Charles Schumer — a Democratic senator from New York — also sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission on Sunday asking that the agency investigate Facebook for breaches of privacy legislation. The latest criticisms appear to have been fueled by Facebook’s recent launch of new features at its f8 conference, including social plugins for websites, an open graph protocol and a so-called “instant personalization” feature that’s being implemented on several sites, including Microsoft’s Docs.com and Yelp.com.

The letter from the four lawmakers says they’d like Facebook to make privacy-related changes “opt in” instead of turning them on by default and requiring users to opt out if they don’t want their information shared. A number of critics, including Search Engine Land writer Danny Sullivan, have complained about the same thing, saying Facebook should not have enabled instant personalization and other services by default, but should have allowed users to decide first whether they wanted to have those features.

The senators are also opposed to allowing websites and services to retain information on users that they receive from Facebook for longer than 24 hours, another recent change made by the company. And they dislike a new feature that adds users to “connection” pages based on topics or places they have expressed an interest in through their Facebook profile. “Social networking sites are a Wild West of the Internet; users need ability to control private information and fully understand how it’s being used,” they said in a news release.

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes told the Associated Press that the company has “powerful tools to give our users control over what information they want to share, when they want to share it and with whom,” but that not everyone has found it easy to discover what they’re opted into and what information they’re sharing — or how to turn it off (we recently posted a simple guide to doing this). Finding out what information is being shared through Facebook’s new open graph protocol and API is not easy, although one developer, who happens to work for Google’s charitable arm, has come up with a tool that shows you on a single page what information of yours Facebook is sharing.

In other privacy-related news, the Commerce Department recently launched an Internet Policy Task Force to investigate whether privacy policies are limiting innovation, and has asked average citizens as well as companies and public agencies to send comments on that issue to the government. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said the task force intends to explore “ways to address the challenges of the new Internet economy and society in a manner that preserves and enhances privacy protection.” It will also investigate cyber security and online copyright protection, the department said.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Why New Net Companies Must Shoulder More Responsibility

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Kevin Dooley

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