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Decision Last Week by Facebook Makes Private Data Available Unless Users Opt-Out, Creating Potential Gold Mine of Data for Unsolicited Advertisements

In Letter To Facebook CEO, Senators Press for Opt-Out Policy to Be Changed To Opt-In So Default Setting Is To Keep Users' Information Private

Senators Say: 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

WASHINGTON, DC- Today,U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer (DNY), Michael Bennet (DCO), Al Franken (DMN) and Mark Begich (DAK) urged Facebook, the online socialnetworking giant, to fix its private policy to block users' personal information from being accessed by third parties without the users' consent. The senators announced they have sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg urging the company to revisit its decision, made last week, to provide select third party websites with personal information that users previously had the ability to keep private.
The senators said the recent changes by Facebook fundamentally alter the relationship between users and the social networking site. Previously, users had the ability to determine what information they wished to share publicly and what information they wanted to keep private. In their letter, the senators urged Facebook to adjust its policy so that users' information stays private by default and can only be shared with third parties if the user opts in.
"Sites like Facebook have revolutionized the way we stay connected and they provide a great new way to communicate. But as these sites become more and more popular, it's vital that users stay in control of their personal information so they don't receive unwanted solicitations. The default policy should be one of privacy, and users should have to choose to share their information, not the other way around. We hope Facebook will take this simple step to make sure that no one's personal information will be made public without them fully aware and consenting," Schumer said.
"Online social networking sites are a great way to share information with friends, keep in touch with family, make business contacts and disseminate all types of information.  They are a growing source for news and information," Bennet said.  "But people have a right to know what they are signing up for. They have a right to know how their personal information is being used.  And they should be given a real opportunity to protect their privacy," Bennet said.
"Every day, more and more Minnesotans, young and old, are joining social networking sites like Facebook. People give these sites their personal information because they assume it will be used to connect them with their friends. But Facebook is taking its users' information, giving it to third parties, and letting them keep it indefinitely.  I'm asking Facebook to better protect its users data and make sure that users know who is getting it," Franken said.
"Alaskans' privacy is guaranteed in our State Constitution and we object to companies who disrespect that right. I hope Facebook heeds our call and will work harder to engage their users before making such broad privacy changes," Begich said. 
Under new policies announced earlier this month, Facebook users must go through a complicated and confusing optout 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 use by used for spam and potentially scammers seeking to peddle their wares.
In their letter to Zuckerberg, the senators said that this problem could be fixed by changing the current "optout" policy to an "optin" policy, whereby the default setting would no longer be to allow users' personal information to be shared with third party sites.  Instead, users would have to make a conscious decision to share the information.  The current policy puts at risk users who are not technically proficient enough to change the settings, or are not aware of the newly changed privacy policy.   
The senators noted that Facebook has 400 million users worldwide and a vast trove 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. Earlier this week, Schumer expressed concern to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about the relative lack of disclosure to users about the sharing of their private information. Schumer asked the FTC to examine the privacy disclosures of social networking sites to ensure that they are not misleading or that they 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.
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 3554 year olds, representing 29% of all users. Additionally, the fastest growing age group of Facebook users are those 55 and over.
A copy of the senators' letter to Facebook appears below.
Mark Zuckerberg
Chief Executive Officer
1601 S. California Ave.
Palo Alto, CA 94304
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 longlost 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 optin 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 thirdparty 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 optout 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 optin 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 optin mechanisms for information sharing instead of expecting users to go through long and complicated optout processes is a critical step towards maintaining clarity and transparency. 
U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer (DNY)                 U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (DCO)                        U.S. Senator Mark Begich (DAK)                        U.S. Senator Al Franken (DMN)