Sen. Schumer Questions Facebook on Privacy

New Data-Sharing Initiative Raises Questions for Regulators

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NEW YORK ( -- Facebook is finding itself in an uncomfortable spot: in the crosshairs of a powerful lawmaker for automatically sharing user data with third-party sites.

Senator Charles Schumer
Senator Charles Schumer Credit: AP
On Sunday, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., urged the Federal Trade Commission to hammer out guidelines for privacy settings on social-networking sites, days after Facebook announced its plan to gather affinity data from all across the internet with its new Open Graph platform.

"We were surprised by Sen. Schumer's comments and look forward to sitting down with him and his staff to clarify," said a Facebook spokesman, adding that "none of these changes removed or reduced people's control over their information and several offered even greater controls."

On his Facebook page, Mr. Schumer said, "Previously, users had the ability to determine what information they chose to share and what information they wanted to keep private."

Last Wednesday, Facebook unveiled new tools to connect sites anywhere on the internet to the social network. With new "Like" buttons already on major publisher and brand sites, consumers can add to their Facebook profile pages by clicking the thumbs-up button on any website. Facebook then stores that data and can push it to partners such as Pandora or Yelp to personalize website experiences, or to publishers to fuel recommendation engines.

This isn't the first time Facebook has launched a universal sharing tool, or ended up under fire. In 2007, CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to apologize for Beacon, a feature for users to share online activities -- such as purchases -- outside Facebook.

While Mr. Schumer's public call to action did also cite other social networks, it set off a flurry of Facebook-specific privacy evaluations in local news broadcasts. It also crystallized bloggers' skepticism of the site's new data collection and privacy settings. Mashable yesterday posted instructions to disable Facebook's "instant personalization," a process that, anecdotally, appears difficult.

With a growing contingent wary of -- if not completely against -- its plan to make "Likes" the connective tissue for the web, what does Facebook need to do to get out of the hot seat?

In Washington, Facebook has little presence to date, though it does support an office in the capital that's tasked with informing officials. As for its 450 million users, Facebook appears to be taking the education route via blog posts, alerts on its website and on partner sites, and briefings for reporters, analysts and consumer advocates. But those efforts have not yet been able to overpower simmering distrust.

"Right now, Facebook is only doing a fair job of educating consumers," said Augie Ray, a social computing analyst at Forrester. "There are opportunities here for consumers to learn, but the question is if consumers are actually availing themselves of the opportunity. That's Facebook's greatest challenge -- there are aspects that are practical and legal, but there are aspects that are simply perception.

"They need to do more to educate consumers," he added. "Not just about Facebook's features and apps, but also about privacy itself. If Facebook secures permission from consumers to share, the pressure for regulators to act on privacy will be reduced, though not eliminated."

Even for industry experts, Facebook's plans are unclear. Mr. Ray doesn't think much has changed since F8, the developer conference last week where the Open Graph was announced.

"It does not seem that Facebook has any significant changes to its privacy policy or tools on the site to diminish the privacy control consumers have," he said.

Contrast that to Jon Bellinger, VP-social media strategy for Ketchum, who points to new settings that make information like name, gender, current city and friends available to Facebook partners like Pandora, Yelp and Microsoft. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this change means current city, hometown, education and work information is public -- if users don't want this information to be disclosed, they must delete the information entirely, even though it has long existed on profile pages.

"[Facebook] would be well-advised to launch a campaign, not just for Facebook users, but for those people who may be Facebook users in the future or who don't trust it, to lift the veil of mystery," agreed Gene Grabowski, senior VP-crisis and litigation for Levick Strategic Communications.

Though, for some, no campaign or communication strategy could save Facebook from murky policy. "I don't think it's a communications issue," said Ketchum's Mr. Bellinger. "It's a product and corporate policy issue. They are not as transparent as they should be, so they put themselves on the defensive. ... Either they are not thinking about public reaction, or they just don't care. Whichever it is, it's not a good strategy."

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