Senators call for changes to Facebook's privacy settings

Four U.S. senators are calling for Facebook to adjust some of the new privacy settings so users can have more control over the personal information that's made public.

The executives at Facebook should be used to this by now - cries of privacy violations stemming from some sort of change to the popular social networking site.

Funny thing, though. I'm not hearing a lot of whining about Facebook's changes from the people on my friend list. Instead, many of them are rallying around a group called "No, I will not pay $3.98 a month to use Facebook as of July 10, 2010" - even though I can't recall ever hearing Facebook talk about such a fee.

No, this time, the group up in arms on behalf of Facebook users who don't know any better is a team of four U.S. Senators who have sent a formal notice of concern to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over recent changes to the site's privacy policy.

Specifically, there are three main concerns addressed in the letter from Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Michael Bennet (D-Col.), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Al Franken (D-Minn.)

  • The opt-out - instead of opt-in - over the expansion of publicly available data to include current city, hometown, education, work, likes, interests and friends. For those who choose to opt-out, the information is deleted from profiles. The senators say the users "should have more control over these very personal and very common data points.
  • The storage of profile data by third-party advertisers used to be limited to 24 hours but that was recently lifted by Facebook. At the f8 conference last week, the executives said this was more of a technicality and suggested that it wasn't as big of a deal as it might sound. Clearly, Facebook needs to do a better job explaining what this is all about.
  • Instant personalization is nice but the senators are concerned that the feature will allow third-party partners to have access to both a user's publicly available information but also to the user's friend list and information about those people. Again, an opt-in instead of an opt-out - in an easy-to-understand way - may be all it takes to satisfy the concerns.

In their letter to Zuckerberg, the senators suggested that, aside from an examination of the issue by the FTC, they believe "Facebook can take swift and productive steps to alleviate the concerns of its users."

It sounds to me that Facebook may need a better way to reach out to its users on what these changes means and how it affects them. After all, Facebook has direct access to our Facebook inboxes, our Facebook walls and our Facebook News Feeds. If Facebook wanted to convey an easy-to-understand message to its users - emphasis on "easy-to-understand" - it certainly has the tools at its fingertips.

If it did a better job of that, maybe it could finally launch a product or partnership or redesign without getting backlash from users or formal letters from U.S. senators