Senators rebuke Facebook privacy practices

Ronny Kerr · April 27, 2010 · Short URL:

Four Democratic US senators contact Zuckerberg and the FTC regarding new Facebook changes

senatorsFour Democratic US Senators sent a letter to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday arguing that the site has crossed the line when it starts automatically sharing user information with third-party sites and services. The senators, Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Michael Bennet (D-Col.), Mark Begich (Alaska), and Al Franken (D-Minn.), have also contacted the FTC, urging the commission to establish stricter rules on the sharing of data from social sites.

Responding directly to Facebook's new features announced last week, including social plugins, the Open Graph API, and Instant Personalization, the letter specifically addresses Facebook's new policy for sharing user data.

The letter first addresses how Facebook has chosen to make a user's current city, hometown, education, work, list of friends, interests, and activities publicly available data. This certainly represents a huge privacy breach, despite the fact that some users may not have any problem with sharing this data with others. The fact remains that users should have to opt-in for Facebook to share this information with others; the default should not be opt-out.

Similarly, the senators react strongly against Instant Personalization, a new feature whereby certain pre-approved sites, like Microsoft Docs, Pandora, and Yelp, automatically receive access to a user's data when they visit that site. The user should always be in control of their data, especially once they surf away from Facebook. Every third-party site that is not actually part of Facebook should have to request access to the user's data.

The letter is reproduced below in full:

April 27, 2010

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

We are writing to express our concern regarding recent changes to the Facebook privacy policy and the use of personal data on third party websites. While Facebook provides a valuable service to users by keeping them connected with friends and family and reconnecting them with long-lost friends and colleagues, the expansion of Facebook – both in the number of users and applications – raises new concerns for users who want to maintain control over their information. The following three changes have raised concerns:

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)

Support VatorNews by Donating

Read more from our "Trends and news" series

More episodes