Franken takes on Facebook privacy issues

Facebook's new policy allows third-party companies to access users’ information more easily.
April 27, 2010

U.S. Sen. Al Franken is no “friend” of Facebook.
The Minnesota Democrat joined three other senators Tuesday to condemn a recent policy change by the California-based company allowing third-party companies easier access to users’ information.
The company began a trial program last week that would allow the personalization of websites, including Yelp, Microsoft’s Docs.com and Pandora, ultimately giving the sites access to public information in a user’s profile.
This information would include names, friend lists, interests and “likes,” according to a company blog written by Austin Haugen, a Facebook product manager.
“These partners were carefully chosen, reviewed and are contractually required to respect people’s privacy preferences,” Haugen wrote.
But this news troubled Franken, who said it is wrong for the social media website to change its policy “midstream.”
He said the new policy, which requires users to “opt-out” of the service rather than choose to allow it, is confusing and could cause people to share sensitive information.
The details Franken is concerned about are more serious than users’ lists of “likes” and interests. He fears for the dissemination of sexual orientation and religious and political views that people typically only want their friends to access.
“This is about people’s personal information,” Franken said in a conference call Tuesday.
He said the website is betraying users’ trust. Bullying against users is also a major concern.
But University of Minnesota students were less concerned.
“You have control over how much information you put on your Facebook account,” nursing sophomore Maggie Kriz said. “It almost seems like a false paranoia.”
Franken said he is more concerned for adolescents and those who may not realize their information is public.
“I’m talking about 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kids,” Franken said.
University biostatistics graduate fellow Harrison Quick agreed that children are more vulnerable.
“Younger kids probably don’t think too much about what they do in general, so it’s probably safer that way,” he said.
But he also said given the choice between paying to use Facebook and having his information shared, he would choose the latter.
Facebook’s effort to put its stamp on more websites is a goal that could yield more moneymaking opportunities for the privately held company.
Franken said legislation is possible depending on Facebook’s response to requests to reconsider the policy.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., sent a letter Sunday to the Federal Trade Commission calling for regulators to draw up clearer privacy guidelines for Facebook and other Internet social networks to follow. Schumer joined Franken in opposing Facebook’s policy change.
The four senators, including Michael Bennet, D-Colo,, and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, also object to Facebook’s decision to allow other businesses to store users’ data for more than 24 hours.
In a written response to Schumer, Facebook Vice President Elliot Schrage said Tuesday that the company welcomes “a continued dialogue with you and others because we agree that scrutiny over the handling of personal data is needed as Internet users seek a more social and interactive experience.”
He echoed earlier statements that Facebook aims to give its more than 400 million users more control, not less.
Franken said returning to previous privacy policies would fulfill that aim.
Either way, students won’t be deterred.
“It’s kind of creepy, but I’m not going to stop using Facebook because of it,” Quick said. “Any information I’m putting out there, I’m putting out there as public anyway.”
—The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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