Senators ask Facebook to make privacy fixes to new features

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Lawmakers are asking Facebook Inc. to roll back a new feature that they say invades the privacy of the popular online social network’s more than 400 million users.

On Tuesday, four U.S. senators objected to the feature that shares information with other websites without the explicit consent of users. They want Facebook to make the feature that currently personalizes content on three other websites “opt in.”


“Social networking sites have become the Wild West of the Internet,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, (D-N.Y.), who with three other Democratic senators -- Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Al Franken of Minnesota -- wrote a letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday outlining their concerns. “The innovation they represent is welcome but users need to have the ability to control their private information and fully understand how it’s being used.”

The privacy blowup comes as millions of people share a wealth of personal information with an ever-expanding network of friends, giving social networking sites enormous reach and moneymaking opportunities. Yet there are no guidelines for what sites like Facebook can do with that information.

A Facebook spokesman said Tuesday that the company gives users unprecedented control over their data and only shares what they have agreed to make public. He said Facebook is also strict about what information it allows other websites to access.

Last week, Facebook launched a pilot program which shares personal information that users have agreed to make public with three other websites — review site Yelp, Microsoft’s document site and music site Pandora — so they can deliver a more personalized experience.

Some users balked, passing around instructions on Facebook on how to turn off the program. Facebook would not disclose how many people have opted out.

Jen Singer, a 43-year-old parenting blogger from Kinnelon, N.J., and an avid Facebook user, said she hasn’t made up her mind about Facebook’s new feature. For now she has turned it off.

“I don’t want to be signed up for something that I don’t know what it is,” Singer said. “Facebook should not automatically sign me up.”

At last week’s conference for developers in San Francisco, Zuckerberg said his company wants to make it easier for users to take their family and friends with them as they browse the Web, turning what was a solitary, anonymous experience into a social, interactive one.

Few have protested the new feature, unlike in 2007 when Facebook users revolted against Beacon, a tool that broadcast their activities and purchases on dozens of websites. Facebook responded by giving people the ability to opt out of the controversial program before eventually scrapping it.

“It’s Ronald Reagan’s line: ‘There they go again,’” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “They will do what they can get away with. Instant personalization is basically pushing people’s data out to third-party websites without their consent. For a lot of people, it’s going to be a big surprise.”

Facebook vice president Elliot Schrage disagreed. “Our highest priority is to keep and build the trust of the more than 400 million people who use our service,” he said.

-- Jessica Guynn