It was the "opt in" aspect of Facebook's "instant personalization" feature last year that got the attention of senators Chuck Schumer of New York, Mark Begich of Alaska, Al Franken of Minnesota, and Michael Bennet of Colorado. They wrote a letter to Zuckerberg objecting to the fact that instant personalization exposes users' identities and those of their friends. With instant personalization, which is being tested on a handful of sites, Facebook shares any information you've allowed "everyone" to see in your Facebook privacy settings, including your birthday, your name, and your hometown. That gives users a more customizable browsing experience.
Log onto the Internet radio site Pandora, and instant personalization will create a radio station for you based on who your friends are and what you've listed as your interests--and if you haven't adjusted your privacy settings, it's the same information available to anyone with a Facebook account. Zuckerberg wasn't the only one Senator Schumer wrote to. He also sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission calling for an investigation into whether Facebook had breached its privacy agreement with users.
The FTC hasn't acted on that letter. And it probably won't. Instead, late last year it released guidelines for a new regulatory framework that would give the agency new authority to crack down on Internet companies that violate their terms of service. Congressional action would be needed to approve the FTC's framework.
Facebook's chief privacy counsel, Michael Richter, wrote to the Commerce Department early this year to explain that Facebook prefers "robust industry self-regulatory efforts, in combination with judicious enforcement by the FTC" as a means of addressing Internet privacy. In other words, it likes things just the way they are, thanks.
To help ensure that the government doesn't get too creative with new regulations, Facebook hired the law firm Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock in February to advocate its positions on Capitol Hill and beyond. That's the same firm that Apple hired this year. The Sunlight Foundation reported that the company was also about to contract with lobbyists at Elmendorf/Ryan, a firm that works for Microsoft and others.
Both of those firms will help Facebook in the United States. But some of its biggest worries lie overseas. Facebook isn't keen on the strict personal-privacy protections already in place in the European Union. And that's where the Commerce Department could help.
Next: With 500 million users, Facebook is still growing