U.S. Senator urges FTC to regulate social net privacy

Sen. Schumer says Facebook, Twitter need guidelines about user privacy

A U.S. Senator is urging the Federal Trade Commission to set privacy guidelines for social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) today wrote an open letter to the FTC asking that the commissioners set guidelines for how information posted on social networks can be used and disseminated. Schumer's letter comes on the heels of Facebook's move to release developer tools and other features designed to help the site pass user information back and forth between other Web sites.

In a post on his Web site, Schumer said the new tools and features fundamentally change the relationship between Facebook users and the popular social network. He added that there is little guidance on what social networking sites can and cannot do, and what disclosures must be made to users.

"Hundreds of millions of people use social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter every day," Schumer said. "These sites have helped reconnect old friends, allowed families from far away to stay in touch, and created new friendships; overall they provide a great new way to communicate.

"As these sites become more and more popular, however, it's vitally important that safeguards are in place that provide users with control over their personal information to ensure they don't receive unwanted solicitations. At the same time, social networking sites need to provide easy-to-understand disclosures to users on how information they submit is being shared," he added.

Schumer told the FTC he would be willing to sponsor legislation to create rules if the agency feels it doesn't have the tools or the authority to create privacy guidelines for social networks.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research Inc. said the Schumer's letter might help raise awareness about the need to keep informartion posted on social networks as protected as possible.

However, he added, "I don't think it's going to lead to regulation, legislation, or even hearings. More important, however, is that we have to develop user awareness of potential dangers. And it would be a good thing if the industry developed a set of standards. It may be that the senator was trying to light a fire under the social networking providers."

Schumer noted that under Facebook's guidelines, users must go through a "complicated and confusing opt-out process" to keep private information from being shared with third party Web sites.

"I am asking the FTC to use the authority given to it to examine practices in the disclosure of private information from social networking sites and to ensure users have the ability to prohibit the sharing of personal information," Schumer said.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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