Facebook fights California privacy push

Legislation would force social networks to tighten their privacy policies

California is considering legislation that would tighten Facebook's privacy practices, and the social network is not happy about it.

The bill, Social Networking Privacy Act (SB 242), would require Facebook and other social networking sites to make big changes to the way they handle users' privacy. Industry analysts say social networks like Facebook could be wary of this move for fear that it will lead to a slippery slope of government control and privacy rules.

"Facebook has been very passive about security. They put the onus on the user to figure the security out on their own," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group. "Now it would automatically be more secure."

The legislation, introduced by California Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, would require Facebook and other social networks doing business in the state to ensure that users set up their privacy settings during the initial registration process, instead of after they've already become users. It also would mandate that social networks set users' default settings to private, as opposed to making them open and forcing users to take action to gain privacy.

The legislation also would enable parents of a child under the age of 18 to have the social network remove their child's personally identifying information from the site.

Facebook opposes the legislation and is actively working to hinder its passage.

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said company representatives have had half a dozen meetings with Corbett since January. The state senator also visited Facebook's office in Palo Alto and met with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

"In each of these interactions, we have raised serious concerns about SB 242 directly to Sen. Corbett," said Noyes. "We've also met face-to-face with the bill's author and every other member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to express our concerns. We will continue to make the case on our own and with other groups... because we and many other online safety experts and industry groups believe SB 242 in its current form is a serious threat both to Facebook's business in California and to meaningful California consumers' choices about use of personal data."

Noyes added that Facebook is concerned that the legislation would not "honor users' expectations" of how they use online sites.

However, analysts doubted that the legislation would dramatically hurt Facebook.

"I don't think that these particular regulations are all that onerous for Facebook," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "They'll have to make some changes, but it's not going to cost them users or much money ... I think the fact that it would set a precedent is what's most troubling for them. If it goes through, then we now have a state that's dictating how a social network operates. In FB's view, it's the first slip down a slippery slope."

Kerravala said if the law passes in California, other states will soon follow suit, adding that he wouldn't be surprised to see federal legislation in the future.

"Some of this seems smart and a good idea, like making the default initial settings lean more private than public," Olds said. "But other pieces of the law make less sense ... State-by-state regulation of anything online is very problematic. The very nature of online commerce or interaction makes state borders irrelevant."

He added that if Facebook pulls out all the stops to kill SB 242, the company might have a good chance of at least getting the legislation watered down.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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