Al Franken targets Facebook privacy


It sounds reasonable enough: Facebook ought to keep your personal information private by default.

But that's not what happens anymore. Facebook now shares your personal information with third-party vendors by default. And it now stores some data indefinitely. (Here's a link to the privacy policy.)

Not happy with that? Neither is Sen. Al Franken. Along with Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, he's asking Facebook to revisit its policy and allow users to 'opt-in' rather than 'opt-out' of data sharing. The senators also want the Federal Trade Commission to set disclosure rules for all social media sites.

(Of course, Franken posted a link on his Facebook page that links to Washington Post coverage of the story.)

In a letter to company CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the senators said, in part, "While Facebook provides a valuable service to users by keeping them connected with friends and family and reconnecting them with long-lost friends and colleagues, the expansion of Facebook - both in the number of users and applications - raises new concerns for users who want to maintain control over their information."

Franken said at a Tuesday press conference that Facebook shouldn't have changed its privacy policy mid-stream, and worried that the change was missed by Facebook users.


"And folks who've put information out that they may not want shared with the entire world are put in the position where they have to opt-out," he said. "Now, I would read what you have to do to opt-out, but we really only have so much time."

Here's an example of how Facebook's move can play out. One of its third-party sites is The Washington Post. If a logged-in Facebook user navigates away to the Post's homepage, a box appears at the top right side of the Post homepage that shows who among the Facebook user's friends has shared or liked Post content in real time. And that means the Post has access to your personal data -- probably without your knowledge.

Updated: Facebook spokester Andrew Noyes challenged the idea that the Post could access a Facebook user's personal data.

"Our highest priority is to keep and build the trust of the more than 400 million people who use our service every month," he said.

"While these plugins appear on other websites, the content populating them comes directly from Facebook. The plugins were designed so that the website you are visiting receives none of this information. These plugins should be seen as an extension of Facebook. You only see a personalized experience with your friends if you are logged into your Facebook account," Noyes said. "If you are not already logged in, you will be prompted to log in to Facebook before you can use a plugin on another site. None of your information--your name or profile information, what you like, who your friends are, what they have liked, what they recommend--is shared with the sites you visit with a plugin. Similarly, no personal information about your actions is provided to advertisers on or on the other site."

Want to beat the system?

One way is through "Instant Personalization", which shares your data with non-Facebook websites and it is automatically set to "Allow."

Go to Account > Privacy Settings > Applications and Websites and uncheck "Allow" to stop that from happening. The page should look something like the screen grab at right.

Another way is to cut back on the amount of personal information you make available on Facebook.

Go to Account > Privacy Settings > Profile Information. Click the drop-down menu and choose "Customize" for options. The page should look like this screen grab at right.

Facebook's vice president of global communications, Elliot Schrage, replied to the senators in a letter, "These new products and features are designed to enhance personalization and promote social activity across the Internet while continuing to give users unprecedented control over what information they share, when they want to share it and with whom."

In other words, Facebook wants to feed the social media beast. It's up to you to put it on a diet.