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Internet privacy comes to head; Facebook to change tools, Google accused of wiretapping

zuckerberg.jpgGallery: Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg says 'We will keep listening'


Internet privacy is having its moment. From flaps at Facebook and Google over the past several months to growing anger by consumers and lawmakers calling for investigations and punishment, the once sleeper issue has gained a sense of urgency in Washington and it appears that companies and regulators are responding.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said in an op-ed in The Washington Post this morning that his company has heard the uproar over changes to its privacy tools and will soon announce changes that will make it easier for users to control and hide user data on the Web. Privacy groups and regulators around the world, meanwhile, have blasted Google for collecting personal information through its Street View application. One privacy group called for an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission, saying Google was essentially wiretapping through its Street View program.

"Thanks to both Google and Facebook, we have all the elements of a perfect privacy storm," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of privacy group, the Center for Digital Democracy. "There are organized and spontaneous consumer protests; investigations by officials on both sides of the Atlantic, and a Congress finally waking up to this issue. We also have a Federal Trade Commission poised to better address the issue, given new leadership there."

The concerns come after years of what some users now describe as oversharing on the Internet. From vacation photos to employment history on social networks and other Web sites, users had been sharing freely about intimate personal details with comfort in the masses. And now they are feeling burned and blindsided by changes that have exposed them more greatly then they initially envisioned, privacy advocates and security experts say. Several grass-roots movements like QuitFacebookDay.com, have called for users to abandon their social networking accounts. QuickFacebookDay has more than 13,000 users commited to quit the site on May 31.

Those changes in privacy policy and security breeches has caused a shift in attitudes, some experts say.

“Brand integrity is extremely important and companies aren’t approaching things holistically when it comes to privacy and security from the start,” said Hemu Nigam, the former chief security officer for News Corp.’s MySpace. “At this point, there is not time for growing pains or excuses. Not thinking about these issues early will hurt a company’s brand in the long term and advertisers will pull out.”

Facebook's Zuckerberg wrote Monday that the social networking goliath will make it simpler for its 400 million users to determine who gets to see their profiles, pictures and postings. And spokesman Andrew Noyes said in a statement last Friday that the firm will make it easier for users to opt out of programs that allow the Web site to share data with advertisers. It doesn’t appear that Facebook will change its policy of sharing data with advertisers unless explicitly told by users otherwise (known as opting out of the practice).

"Facebook has been growing quickly," Zuckerberg said. "It's a challenge to keep that many people satisfied over time."

Of specific complaints by users, privacy advocates and lawmakers, Zuckerberg said:

"Simply put, many of you thought our controls were too complex... We missed the mark," he said. "In the coming weeks we will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use. We will also give you an easy way to turn off all third-party services."

Lawmakers, including Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) called for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook’s privacy tools, including how changes last December made some profile information more widely available to other Web users. The lawmaker also called for the FTC to look into new business programs in recent weeks that have made user data more broadly available to advertisers. Last week, Facebook said it would remove a program that share user identifications and other information to advertisers when a user clicked on an advertisement. The discovery was made by The Wall Street Journal.

Greater scrutiny by regulators and lawmakers are already in the works. The FTC is working on a privacy framework for social networking sites. Rep. Rick Boucher’s bill on online privacy allows advertisers to gain access to user data but may place some curbs on how much data is collected, particularly for location-based services.

Indeed, there is growing pressure for regulators to punish online social networking sites and applications for collecting too much user data. Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton, called for an FTC investigation and the agency appears to be looking into the practice first discovered by European regulators.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center sent a letter last Friday to the Federal Communications Commission, asking for an investigation into Google’s for its collection of user data off its Street View application. In the letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Rotenberg said Google collected any data sent to and from a residential WiFi account, which amounted to a violation of communications laws. Specifically, he said the activity broke federal wiretap laws.

“The Wiretap Act provides for civil liability and criminal penalties against any person who ‘intentionally intercepts, endeavors to intercept, or procures any other person to intercept . . .electronic communications,” Rotenberg wrote.

He has complained that regulators and lawmakers haven't been tough enough on Internet search engines, social networks and publishers for scarfing up user information to monetize into ads.

“It’s time for Congress to hold hearings and for the FCC and FTC to undertake enforcement actions,” Rotenberg said.

By Cecilia Kang  |  May 24, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  FCC , FTC , Facebook , Google , Privacy  
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Next: Washington Post editorial critical of FCC move to oversee broadband

Comments

Acused? It's a day for mispellings :)

I think Google causes concerns for privacy, but their "wire tapping" is not really the issue. Google was collecting the name and MAC address for WiFi networks. This information is broadcast, so this seems legal. But they accidentally recorded some information on the data transmitted over the network, hence the accusation.

The accident was irresponsible, but I'm not so worried about it. The real question is why would I (or anyone) care what residential WiFi networks are available?

Posted by: kjsharke | May 24, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Mr. Zuckerberg.

The issue is not whether I should have a choice as to who to share my content with, it is the fact that by posting it, I sub-license Facebook to do what you want with it. To wit, here is the legalese on your site:

"For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos ("IP content"), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook ("IP License"). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it. When you delete IP content, it is deleted in a manner similar to emptying the recycle bin on a computer. However, you understand that removed content may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time (but will not be available to others)."

Sorry, Mark, what is mine is mine...

Posted by: Keenobserver | May 24, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

"Acused" ? Really? Do they just not edit the Post anymore? Seriously, I need to figure out how to get a writing gig there.

Posted by: alphaking5 | May 24, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Well, the Post has been justifiably "acused" of not only failing to catch its reporters' misspellings, but also failing to address their conflicts of interest. As is the case with Cecilia Kang, who lobbies in print and online for Google.

Here, for once in a VERY long while, she is at least neutral about Google's clear violations of the law. What is interesting, though, is that she reports on a letter sent to the FCC about the issue. The FCC doesn't enforce wiretapping laws. So, Kang is mentioning an essentially toothless complaint against her sponsor, and conspicuously fails to follow up with commentary from sources (such as district attorneys, state attorneys general, Federal prosecutors, and the FBI) who might actually engage in prosecution of Google's criminal activity.

Posted by: LBrettGlass | May 24, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

This is proof positive that Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have not heard what is being said.
#1-Default setting at privacy level from the start. #2-Opt into sharing. #3-simple settings. One message out of 3 is more like blindness than what I would call listening and hearing the outcry.
Now trusting Facebook is the issue. I can't say that I do, after this stunt and Facebooks planned inadequate response. Is that clear enough?

Posted by: Ken51 | May 24, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

"Internet privacy is having its moment."

Lets just hustle Mark Zuckerberg and Eric Schmidt off to jail and we can get this Privacy fad over with. OK? We'll just call them collateral damage. OK?

Cool.

Posted by: gannon_dick | May 24, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

I don't use Facebook and I certainly don't like the fact that data passed to another user can be used as a profit generating piece of data by the owners of Facebook just because someone else who I send something to who has a Facebook account and posts it to another friend (because its easier?) doesn't know how to set up the tightest privacy settings. More like a leaky bucket if the truth be known.

As for Google well I certainly don't agree with them taking snapshots of where I live and posting them free to all and sundry. Its a free planning service for the criminal element. Want to raid a nice quiet property? Just Google it and start planning your raid. Piece of cake.
No-one that I know is interested in wireless networks. Then again the only ones who are likely to be interested are probably the ones looking for the unprotected networks, and for obvious illegal reasons, so once again its Google to the rescue of the criminal element.
Nice work if you can get it.

Posted by: KevinColeman | May 24, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Since we're commenting on the writer's spelling errors, I may as well point out that she must be a 20-something. She commits the standard then/than error seen in the writing of so many in that age bracket.

Posted by: joe3eagles | May 24, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

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