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Facebook at center of privacy concerns

SAN FRANCISCO – Lawmakers and privacy watchdogs are asking Facebook Inc. to roll back a new feature that they say invades the privacy of the popular online social network’s more than 400 million users.

Adding to controversy over the new feature, four U.S. senators on Tuesday objected to Facebook sharing users’ personal information with other Web sites without the explicit consent of the users. They want Facebook to ask users to “opt into” the feature that personalizes content on three other Web sites rather than “opt out” of it.

“Social networking sites have become the Wild West of the Internet,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a letter he wrote Tuesday with three other Democratic senators – Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mark Begich of Alaska; and Al Franken of Minnesota. The letter was addressed to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. “The innovation they represent is welcome but users need to have the ability to control their private information and fully understand how it’s being used.”

A privacy watchdog group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, also said it was preparing to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. The group is calling for greater scrutiny of how Facebook uses the data that the privately held company has amassed over its six-year history and for clearer privacy guidelines for all social networks.

Google Inc.’s launch of the social networking service Buzz and Facebook’s recent moves have intensified the public debate over online privacy. They have drawn scrutiny from regulators in Europe and Canada.

“Facebook has to address privacy on a global scale. It’s part of the burden it carries to achieve what it wants to achieve,” Forrester Research analyst Augie Ray said.

The privacy blowup comes as millions of people share a wealth of personal information with an ever-expanding network of friends, giving social networking sites enormous reach and moneymaking opportunities. Yet there are no guidelines for what sites like Facebook can do with that information.

A Facebook spokesman said Tuesday that the company gives users unprecedented control over their data and only shares what they have agreed to make public. He said Facebook is also strict about what information it allows other Web sites to access.

“Our highest priority is to keep and build the trust of the more than 400 million people who use our service,” Facebook vice president Elliot Schrage said in a letter to Schumer.

Last week, Facebook launched a pilot program which shares personal information with three other websites – review site Yelp, Microsoft’s document site and music site Pandora – to deliver what it called a more personalized experience for its users. But some users balked, passing around instructions on how to turn off the program. Facebook would not disclose how many people have opted out.

“They say they are doing it to enhance the experience for the Facebook user. But they are doing it to enhance their long-term business goals,” said Ava Roxanne Stritt, a 46-year-old blogger from McDonough, Ga. “So I decided to un-enhance my experience on Facebook.”

Facebook, with its explosive growth, has become a daily fixture in people’s lives. It was the fourth-most-frequented site in the U.S. in February, according to Nielsen Co. Facebook’s advertising business is also growing rapidly.

In December, Facebook began sharing some personal information with Web sites unless individual users altered their privacy settings.

“People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people,” Zuckerberg said at a technology awards show in January. “That social norm is just something that has evolved.”

At last week’s conference for developers in San Francisco, Zuckerberg said his company wants to make it easier for users to take their family and friends with them as they browse the Web, turning what was a solitary, anonymous experience into a social, interactive one. He said the development marks an important cultural shift in the evolution of the Internet.

Facebook rolled out a “Like” button that other Web sites can install for free. Users click the button to say they liked an article or a band, then Facebook publishes that information on the user’s page with a link back to the site. Sites can also offer other plug-ins that tell them what Facebook friends have done on the site, such as review a restaurant. The plug-ins deliver more traffic to Facebook and other sites and could give advertisers more data so they can more precisely target ads. Facebook says it’s not launching any ad-related products at this time.

The feature that has sparked controversy transmits public Facebook information, such as name, profile, picture, gender and friends, to help three launch partners, Yelp, Pandora or, tailor their sites to your tastes.

Facebook automatically turned on the feature for all users, but gave them the opportunity to turn it off, both on Facebook and on the partner sites.

“That’s Facebook’s modus operandi: They make a change. They tell people how to opt out. They gamble on the fact that many people don’t pay attention to or care about Facebook’s end game,” EMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson said. “Facebook is pushing toward a future where they hope there will be fewer controls people want to put on their privacy.”