Facebook execs answer new privacy criticisms

The social-networking site met Wednesday with congressional staffers about information-sharing concerns

Facebook will work with U.S. lawmakers to address concerns about privacy following the social-networking site's announcement a week ago that it was sharing users' personal information with other sites, company officials said Wednesday.

But Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Elliot Schrage, the company's vice president of global communications, marketing and public policy, also said they planned to move forward with the site's so-called instant personalization program. The new initiative allows third-party sites access to personal information from Facebook.

Facebook, at its heart, is about allowing users to share information with each other, Schrage said during a teleconference with reporters. "There's been a lot of confusion about this," he said. "Facebook doesn't impose connection and sharing. Users join a community when they join Facebook, and the size and openness of that community is completely within their control."

Facebook's announcement that it would share user information with Yelp.com, Pandora.com and other sites prompted several critics to raise new concerns about the site's privacy protections. On Tuesday, three U.S. senators, Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, and Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, released a letter they sent to Facebook asking officials there to rethink the decision.

Schumer also called on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to create privacy standards for social-networking sites.

"As these sites become more and more popular ... 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," he said. "At the same time, social-networking sites need to provide easy-to-understand disclosures to users on how information they submit is being shared."

On Wednesday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation e-mailed an alert telling Facebook users how to opt out of having their information shared with third-party sites.

Facebook officials met with Schumer's staff Wednesday, Schrage said. The senators raised some "legitimate questions," he said.

Facebook and Schumer's staff agreed that users should have control of their information, and the site has the responsibility to help users understand any changes when Facebook rolls out new information-sharing services, Schrage said. However, there were "harder discussions" about how to achieve those goals and whether Facebook's current set of privacy tools achieves those goals, he said.

Facebook also talked to Schumer's staff about the benefits the personalization services bring to users, added Andrew Noyes, Facebook's manager for public policy communications.

"At the same time, we recognize that some users have concerns and we discussed ways to address them," Noyes said. "The senator's staff raised a number of questions that we promised to explore and respond to going forward."

Asked about Facebook's frequent changes to its privacy tools, Sandberg said the site is constantly rolling out new features. "What's really happening is the product's changing," she said. "We pride ourselves on providing the best possible product we can, which enables them to share and connect. We'll continue to evolve our service."

Schrage seemed to dismiss a suggestion that Facebook creates privacy problems for users. "Facebook is all about sharing information," he said. "Sharing information is, at some level, antithetical to secrecy, antithetical to the idea of privacy. We believe that we bridge the divide between sharing and privacy through the vehicle of [user] control."

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Grant Gross

IDG News Service
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