New York Senator Takes on Facebook

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Facebook wants to ride its new Open Graph protocol past Google on the road to Internet domination. But first, they're going to have to get past Sen. Chuck Schumer.

The New York senator wrote a letter to the FTC asking them to look at Facebook's privacy guidelines. Facebook's new plug-ins allow users like you and me to see articles, or music, or restaurants our friends have "liked" throughout the Internet. Information that used to live in a news feed on Facebook will now follow us around the Web. What was once merely public is now really, really public.

In the long run, Facebook's newest invention is probably a good thing. It will make online shopping better when websites can tell us what kind of jeans our friends liked. It will make online advertising more lucrative when smart phone ads serve up ads for restaurants and shops we support on Facebook. But rather than be asked to opt-in to this brave new world of smart sites and smarter phones, Facebookers' information is automatically slurped into the matrix. Opt-in is the default; opt-out is the option.

Schumer wants to flip that around and offer users more upfront control over their accounts. Fine. He can ask, but it's extremely unlikely that the FTC will decide that the Facebook's new tool violates privacy any more than their old default opt-in rules. In fact, it's extremely unlikely that most users even care. An opt-out world -- that is a world where control is more important than privacy -- is the world we're living in.

So ultimately, it's good that Schumer is asking. Facebook is onto something powerful and potentially revolutionary with Open Graph, but it has a dubious record of loosening privacy rules when it makes architecture changes. The company has changed its privacy settings so often it appears to have once even confused its founder into making public pictures that he later reclaimed behind a privacy wall. If Schumer's letter accomplishes nothing more than to scare Facebook into freezing its privacy policy and to make more users aware of how they can opt-out of Open Graph, Facebook can continue to innovate while its users understand that ultimately we have the power to turn it off.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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