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Facebook executive takes heat in hearing on privacy

A Senate panel chairman angry over underage use of the social networking site accuses co-founder Mark Zuckerberg of lacking 'social values' and asks the firm's technology chief to defend its practices.

May 20, 2011|By Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times
  • From left, Bret Taylor, Facebook's chief technology officer; Morgan Reed, executive director of the Assn. for Competitive Technology; Catherine A. Novelli, Apple's vice president for worldwide government affairs; Alan Davidson, director of public policy at Google; and Amy Guggenheim Shenkan, president of Common Sense Media.
From left, Bret Taylor, Facebook's chief technology officer; Morgan… (Joshua Roberts, Bloomberg )

Reporting from Washington — A leading senator, angry that Facebook Inc. failed to stop millions of preteens from using its social networking site, accused co-founder Mark Zuckerberg of lacking "social values" and being more concerned with building the company than with children's privacy.

"It's my general feeling that people who are 20, 21, 22 years old really don't have any social values at this point," Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) told another top Facebook executive at a hearing Thursday.

"I think he was focused on how the business model would work," Rockefeller said about Zuckerberg, who was a 19-year-old Harvard student when he created Facebook in 2004. "He wanted to make it bigger and faster and better than anybody else ever had."

The company's policy requires users to be at least 13, a move designed to avoid federal regulations for websites used by young children. But a recent Consumer Reports survey found that about 7.5 million active Facebook users were younger than 13.

Rockefeller's comments came as a Facebook executive for the first time came under congressional quizzing in a recent round of hearings about concerns that technology companies are not protecting personal privacy. Executives from Apple Inc. and Google Inc., which sent witnesses to a hearing last week, also appeared at Thursday's hearing before a Commerce subcommittee.

Rockefeller, a key player on technology issues, and other lawmakers are considering new regulations to protect online privacy, particularly for children. The issue has gained momentum with the recent revelation that an obscure file on iPhones and iPads could store thousands of detailed records of a user's whereabouts.

Rockefeller said he was recently told by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg that the company has only 100 people monitoring the posts and other activities of about 600 million users.

"My reaction to that is that's just absolutely indefensible," Rockefeller told Facebook Chief Technology Officer Bret Taylor, saying he was worried about children being targeted by sexual predators and online bullies. "I want you to defend your company here because I don't know how you can."

Taylor said Facebook shuts down the accounts of people found to be lying about their age to avoid the company's restriction.

"We don't allow people to misrepresent their age," Taylor said.

But he admitted Facebook depended on other users to report such violations to enforce the policy.

The under-age problem at Facebook showed that big technology companies have not made privacy a top priority, said Amy Guggenheim Shenkan, president of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit children and family advocacy group.

Such hugely successful innovators should be able to create ways to better protect children's privacy, Shenkan said. She then took a swipe at Facebook for hiring a high-powered public-relations firm to push news organizations to write negative stories about privacy issues at Google.

"Instead of spending money to ... hire PR firms to try and take down the other company, let's take that money and spend it on figuring out technological ways that will protect our kids," she told the subcommittee. "It can't be 100 people sitting in a Facebook office trying to monitor 600 million conversations."

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who has introduced bipartisan legislation to prevent the misuse of sensitive consumer information, said that privacy protection is not "the enemy of innovation."

"Companies collecting people's information, whether you're a tech titan or not, ought to comply with a basic code of conduct," Kerry said.

But Taylor warned that new privacy restrictions could squelch Facebook and other social networks.

Facebook tries to protect privacy by letting users choose which information they share, he said. But Taylor cautioned that many people want to share their pictures and other details of their lives to get the most out of social networks, and Facebook doesn't want to assume that all its users want to put a vault around their data.

"We understand that trust is a foundation of the social Web. People will stop using Facebook if they lose trust in our services," he said. "At the same time, overly restrictive policies can interfere with the public's demand for new and innovative ways to interact."

But lawmakers said many people are clamoring for more protection of their personal data, particularly now as more mobile devices can provide detailed information about a person's whereabouts.

David Vladeck, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said such location data deserved "special protection," though the agency has stopped short of calling for legislation.

Google also has said it collects location data from mobile devices using its Android software. But Google and Apple executives said they collected the information anonymously and shared it with third-party applications only if the user agreed.

"Does Apple track the location of my iPhone?" Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) asked, holding up his device.

"We do not, sir," said Catherine A. Novelli, Apple's vice president for worldwide government affairs.

The company never tracked a user's actual location from the data collected on iPhones and iPads, only the location of nearby cellphone towers and Wi-Fi hot spots, she said.

Apple said a software glitch caused the location data to be updated even when the user had chosen not to use location-based services. The bug was fixed in the latest software release, and the data will be encrypted in the next update, Novelli said.

jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com.

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