Rockefeller questions Facebook, MySpace on privacy efforts

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerBottom Line World Health Day: It's time to fight preventable disease Lobbying World MORE (D-W.Va.) on Tuesday questioned whether Facebook and other social networking sites are protecting their users' privacy. 

In a letter Tuesday to the leaders of MySpace and Facebook, Rockefeller said he was concerned about reporting in the Wall Street Journal alleging privacy leaks on Facebook and MySpace. Recent reports by the newspaper said third-party app companies provided some user data from the sites to advertisers, violating official policies of MySpace and Facebook.

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“These reports raise serious questions about social networking sites’ commitment to enforcing their own privacy policies on behalf of consumers,” Rockefeller said in a statement. 

He added that he is "dedicated to protecting American consumers from abuse and violations of their trust. I intend to find out whether today’s social networking sites are adequately protecting their users’ personal information."

Rockefeller addressed his letter to Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive of Facebook, and Michael Jones, president of MySpace. He asked the companies about how they enforce their policies and what penalties they impose on those who flout them. He also asked how the companies keep users notified of privacy developments. 

Some critics have argued Facebook and MySpace have been too cavalier with user privacy, but many others say the alleged breaches amounted to no real harm. They said the level of data exchange involved in these alleged breaches is customary on the Web as advertisers seek to target their offerings to interested customers.

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said Tuesday the company will address "confusion" that resulted from the newspaper report.

“We look forward to addressing any confusion that has resulted from the Wall Street Journal article and we’re happy to work with Sen. Rockefeller to answer any questions he may have," he said.

He said the issue is not "specific to Facebook" but is "caused by an inherent weakness in how Web browsers work, particularly the amount of information about a user that browsers shared with visited websites."

He said the issue has existed "across the Internet for years."

"Our proposed solution is to encrypt all user IDs that applications access with a key that is only available to Facebook and the application being used. But we aren’t stopping there. We’re going to work with browser manufacturers to address this issue on the browser level across the Internet," he said.

Facebook investigates and takes action in circumstances where third-party apps transfer information to advertisers or data brokers, he added.