Internet privacy comes to head; Facebook to change tools, Google accused of wiretapping
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.
“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.
May 24, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories: FCC , FTC , Facebook , Google , Privacy
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