Lawmakers grill Internet firms over privacy protection

After a string of online privacy problems this year, legislators grilled Google Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook and AT&T Inc. on Tuesday, seeking assurance that user information will be protected in the future.

Senators questioned whether new legislation is needed to protect people’s personal information online during a hearing held by the Senate Commerce Committee.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the committee, said legislators must ask whether Americans “fully understand and appreciate what information is being collected about them, and whether or not they are empowered to stop certain practices from taking place.”


Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jonathan Leibowitz said people often didn’t read privacy policies on websites and that Internet companies’ privacy policies didn’t necessarily protect users.

“There’s a huge disconnect between what consumers think happens to their data and what really happens to their data,” Leibowitz said.

Leibowitz also reiterated the FTC’s support for opt-in web features, which let users choose whether they want to share information with a Web application rather than having their information shared by default.

Google, Facebook, Apple and AT&T have all grappled with recent privacy issues. In May, Google said code inserted in the software of its Street View feature had inadvertently gathered and stored user data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Facebook launched a new feature this spring that shared user data with third-party sites, including music streaming service Pandora, by default. Last month, e-mail addresses of iPad users were exposed through a security flaw on AT&T’s website.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said Tuesday that he planned to work with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) on an online privacy bill and hoped to pass it early next year.

“As a matter of law, we need new baseline standards for privacy protection that ensure people’s identity is treated with the respect it deserves,” Kerry said.

But technology companies appear likely to oppose new privacy legislation. Google, Facebook, Apple and AT&T emphasized the strength of the privacy mechanisms they have in place during Tuesday’s hearing. And in keeping with the fast pace of the technology industry, many companies prefer to release new products first and fine-tune them after.

Alma Whitten of Google admitted the search company had “occasionally” made privacy mistakes, but said the Mountain View, Calif., company didn’t use the data it collected from its Street View software or share it with others.

“We disclosed what has happened and acknowledged our mistake,” said Whitten of the Street View incident. “We need to do better.”

But Rockefeller criticized Whitten for talking about Google’s economic strength rather than its privacy methods.

“It was interesting to me that you started out by talking about how successful Google is,” Rockefeller said. “We all know that.”