US senators get testy with Facebook over privacy

Two more lawmakers are asking Facebook to change the way it shares personal information

Two more U.S. Senators have taken issue with Facebook's "opt-out" approach to recent privacy changes, asking the social networking site to change its ways.

Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) will join Charles Schumer (D-NY) in sending a letter to Facebook showing disapproval of the way the site shares information with third-party sites, the Washington Post reports. Schumer said yesterday that he's also asked the Federal Trade Commission to create privacy rules for social networking sites.

The lawmakers are concerned with Facebook's addition of new features that can only be disabled through a multi-step opt-out process. Users first have to tell Facebook not to share information with third-party sites like Pandora and Yelp, and then they must go to each individual site and block Facebook to prevent friends from accessing and sharing that information.

"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," the Senators said in a press release.

I think Facebook deserves the scrutiny. The folks who say "if you don't like it, don't use it" underestimate or don't understand how important Facebook has become to people's lives. It's the second-most popular Web site in the United States. Even if you assume most people understand privacy changes when Facebook makes them--and that's a big assumption--it's not fair to ask them to leave if they don't like what's happening. People need to connect with other people, that's just human nature, and Facebook has created a system that's difficult to leave.

So, someone has to step in and make some rules to protect people's privacy. My issue with what our senators are doing is twofold: First, they're only targeting one site, and while it's the biggest target for all the reasons mentioned above, it's not the only one. Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Google Buzz could all use some rules on what can be shared without users' explicit, opt-in permission.

The other issue is that the senators are passing off the job to the FTC while hoping that Facebook makes some voluntary changes. Grandstanding isn't completely without merit, as it does draw attention to what social networking sites are doing, but ultimately there's a reason why senators are referred to as lawmakers.

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