Today, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to provide guidelines for social networking sites, like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter on how private information submitted by online users can be used and disseminated. Schumer’s call to the FTC comes on the heels of recent reports that Facebook has decided to provide user data to select third party websites and has begun sharing personal profile information that users previously had the ability to restrict access to. These recent changes by Facebook fundamentally change the relationship between the user and the social networking site. Previously, users had the ability to determine what information they chose to share and what information they wanted to keep private. Recent policy changes are fundamentally changing that relationship and there is little guidance on what social networking sites can and cannot do and what disclosures are necessary to consumers.
Under new policies, 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 used to have 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, intent on peddling their wares.
“Hundreds of millions of people use social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter every day,” said Schumer. “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.”
In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, Schumer expressed his concern about the collection and sharing of data on these social networking sites and the disclosure process by which users are notified that their private information is being shared. He noted there are no guidelines for user privacy on social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter and that ever-changing privacy policies adopted by networks are often confusing to understand.
Schumer asked Chairman of the FTC to 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. He also urged the FTC to provide guidelines for use of private information and prohibit access without user permission.
Schumer noted that Facebook alone has 400 million users worldwide and a plethora 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. He noted 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.
“I am asking the FTC to use the authority given to it to examine practices in the disclosure of private information from social networking sites and to ensure users have the ability to prohibit the sharing of personal information,” Schumer continued. “If the FTC feels it does not have the authority to do so under current regulations I will support them in obtaining the tools and authority to do just that.”
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.