Senators Accuse Facebook of Exposing Private Information; Facebook Says No

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, never shy of a fight, on Tuesday accused the world's largest social networking website, Facebook, of needlessly exposing private information of its 400 million users without their permission.  Joined by Sens. Al Franken, D-MN, and Mike Bennet, D-CO, Schumer called on the company to change its policies or possibly face government action.

And the impetus? Schumer's daughter, Jessica, a Yale Law School student, called her father recently to rail against Facebook's changes to its privacy policy. "She called me up very upset," Schumer recounted to reporters Tuesday, as Facebook changed privacy settings last week to require that its users opt out of the sharing of their personal information with third parties.

In a letter to Schumer provided to Fox, Elliot Schrage, Vice President of Global Communications, Marketing and Public Policy for Facebook, defended his company as "a leader in transparency," and said, "Specifically, 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. All of Facebook's products interact with a user's consent."

But the "consent" involves an exceedingly complicated process several layers into the site, something that also came under attack by the senators who called on Facebook to at least streamline that process, or, their preference -  to create an "opt in", rather than a complicated "opt out."

"I would read what you have to do to opt out, but we really have only so much time here," Franken joked.

The freshman senator, exposing a penchant for car magazines as something listed on his Facebook sight (his son loves them, he says) said far more embarrassing personal information could be exposed "to the entire world" - "like sexual orientation" - without a user's permission, something the senator criticized as changing the terms of usage "mid-stream."

"The default position should be that the information is not shared, not the information is shared. This would ensure that the default setting for all users is that their information is kept private. The onus here should be on Facebook, not the user," Schumer said, as he unveiled a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in which he notes that the Federal Trade Commission is now going to examine this issue.

Schumer said it's possible the FTC could take action without Congress providing a legislative remedy, though Schumer did not rule that option out, saying the FTC might need to promulgate some rules for this particular situation in the short run.

The senators lauded social networking sites like Facebook as innovative and progressive, but they said there needs to be balance between freedom of information and civil liberties, a balance in the free market that protects consumer privacy.

Bennet, who noted he has three children of his own, ages 10, nine, and five, to educate about privacy protections, seemed to predict a resolution could easily be found. "There's a way to strike this balance."

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes, manager of Public Policy Communications, e-mailed the following statement to Fox, "We appreciate the concerns raised by Sen. Schumer and expect that further dialogue with interested members of Congress about the user controls that accompany the tools announced by Facebook last week will alleviate any concerns they may have."

That dialogue will begin on Wednesday, as staff to Schumer sit down with Facebook officials, according to a Schumer aide.