FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 27, 2010
Recent Decision by Facebook Makes Private Data Available Unless Users Opt-Out, Creating Potential Gold Mine of Data for Unsolicited Advertisements
In Letter To Facebook CEO, Schumer Presses for Opt-Out Policy to Be Changed To Opt-In
Schumer: Social Networking Sites are the Wild West of the Internet; Users Need Ability to Control Private Information and Fully Understand How It's Being Used
Schumer said that these recent changes by Facebook fundamentally affect 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 altering that relationship, and there is little guidance on what social networking sites can and cannot do and what disclosures are necessary to users. Schumer will call on Facebook to reform its policy so that users’ information stays private by default and can only be shared with third parties if the user proactively opts in.
“Millions of New Yorkers use social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter every day with an expectation that their private information is shared only with those they choose to connect with,” 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 and other nuisances, and that they are not automatically gathered into online groups without their consent. The default policy should be one of privacy, and users should be in control of how they choose to share their information, not the other way around.”
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 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 be used for spam and potentially scammers, intent on peddling their wares.
“I love baseball, but I don’t want to be grouped online with thousands of people who also like baseball unless I choose to join this kind of online group. Right now, this new Facebook policy does just that. No doubt, marketers peddling their wares will find this grouping a treasure trove and inundate users with solicitations and more,” said Schumer.
Schumer today also release a report estimating the number of users of social networking sites in each region of the state. In Upstate New York and Long Island, approximately 2.5 million people under the age of 45 have personal pages on social networking sites. The region by region breakdown is as follows:
· In the Southern Tier, there are approximately 210,800 users under the age of 45 who have social networking sites.
· In the Capital Region, there are approximately 303,600 users under the age of 45 who have social networking sites.
· In Western New York, there are approximately 347,100 users under the age of 45 who have social networking sites.
· In the Rochester-Finger Lakes Region, there are approximately 318,800 users under the age of 45 who have social networking sites.
· In Central New York, there are approximately 274,200 users under the age of 45 who have social networking sites.
· In the North Country, there are approximately 159,300 users under the age of 45 who have social networking sites.
· In the Hudson Valley, there are approximately 274,200 users under the age of 45 who have social networking sites.
· In Long Island, there are approximately 703,800 users under the age of 45 who have social networking sites.
Today’s letter comes days after Schumer expressed his concern to the FTC 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 the 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.
In the letter, Schumer wrote: “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.”
The full text of the letter to the company can be found below. Schumer was joined in his letter to Facebook by Senators Franken, Bennet, and Begich:
Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,
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.