Privacy legislation looms as Facebook CEO heads to Washington

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and two other Facebook executives have gone to Washington D.C. this week to explain the company’s stance on privacy as momentum builds for online consumer privacy legislation.

Privacy is a particularly pressing issue for Facebook, whose 500-million-user community publishes a vast amount of personal information online. The company has updated its privacy policies several times, each time drawing waves of complaints, and it has been criticized by many in the technology community for mishandling user privacy. The most recent uproar began this past April after Facebook introduced an instant personalization program that would automatically share user data with other special partners like Yelp and Pandora.

This week, the company’s chief technology officer Bret Taylor (pictured below) testified at a Senate hearing on online consumer privacy, while chief security officer Joe Sullivan spoke before a House subcommittee earlier this week.

The company’s moves come after House representatives Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) each introduced draft legislation earlier this year that would regulate how online services can collect personal data and advertise to users. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) has also pledged to introduce similar legislation into the Senate.

Rush’s bill places more responsibility on companies to protect consumer privacy, while Boucher’s bill places the burden of responsibility on consumers, according to the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The Federal Trade Commission is also considering a “do-not-track” list that would let consumers opt out of behaviorally targeted advertising, similar to the “do not call” list.

Taylor faced a skeptical audience when he testified earlier this week. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), who is chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation was critical of Facebook’s complex privacy controls:

“My question is — are we dividing ourselves into two classes of people? People who can understand and handle all of these instruments and those who can not. And those who cannot are paying a price for they cannot understand,” he said to Taylor.

In the face of all these efforts, Facebook has been aggressively stepping up its presence in the Capitol. It spent $60,000 on lobbying in the second quarter, according to disclosure records. It also recently hired White House economic advisor Marne Levine to help it manage relationships with governments around the world.

In a telling public interview last week, David Kirkpatrick, a Fortune reporter and author of “The Facebook Effect,” asked Zuckerberg whether he was willing to step up to a role that would require more and more of his time to be spent on interfacing with government officials. “You’re a product guy. Are you going to want to be dealing with government officials? I heard you did well with David Cameron [referring to Zuckerberg's meeting with the U.K. Prime Minister earlier this month] — but there are a lot of misconceptions abroad in dozens of other countries about Facebook.”

Zuckerberg responded,”What I find more often than not is that all of these people are reasonable. The key thing is to engage with all of these people and have real discourse.”


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