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Facebook's wise privacy move

By deciding to let users control more of their personal information, Facebook vented pressure building up in Washington to get lawmakers involved. That's a relief not just to Facebook users but everyone on the Web.

May 28, 2010

Hooray, Facebook saved the Internet! OK, so maybe that's making too much of the privacy controls that Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Wednesday. But if the company hadn't addressed the uproar over its ever-changing privacy policy, there was a real possibility that Washington would have stepped in with new rules that would have applied to all social network operators, or even all websites. And we'd like to keep the nanny state away from the Net as long as possible.

That's not to defend what Facebook has been doing. The company operates the world's largest social network, with more than 400 million registered users. Collectively, these users pour data about themselves onto the site faster than BP spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico. But people flock to Facebook in order to share information with a select circle of friends, not necessarily with the entire wired planet. Contrary to their expectations, Facebook has gradually exposed more and more of their profiles, photos and other postings to the public at large. It also launched a program to share personal information with other websites unless users instructed the site not to do so.

Its behavior has sent groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center running to lawmakers and regulators for help. The center filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, arguing that Facebook's evolving privacy policy amounts to a bait and switch — users post information to the site under one set of rules for disclosure, then Facebook changes the rules to allow more disclosure of the posted material. Four Senate Democrats recently sent Zuckerberg a letter, urging him to make specific changes in the company's handling of user data. And two House members have been circulating a draft bill to regulate how Facebook and other websites collect information about their users and share it with advertisers.

By deciding voluntarily to let users control more of their personal information, and by giving them simpler tools to do so, Facebook vented some of the pressure building up in Washington. That's a relief not just to Facebook users but everyone on the Web. It's one thing for the Federal Trade Commission to hold companies to the promises they make to their users; it's another for lawmakers to try to design privacy policies for sites whose technical capabilities are constantly advancing, along with their users' demand for services and attitudes about privacy. As Zuckerberg has noted, Facebook triggered outrage when it started sending users' updates automatically to all of their friends. Now that kind of "news feed" is a central feature of just about every social network. What looks like a threat today may prove to be an asset tomorrow.

There may come a day when Washington has to craft new rules to stop websites from preying on defenseless users, but we're not there yet.

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