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Longer may not always be better: Congressmen question Facebook's prolix privacy policy

Following on the heels of Facebook's landmark settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, a bipartisan group of members of the House of Representatives has apparently read the "new and improved" Facebook privacy policy and were not impressed.

Reps. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), Ed Markey (D-MA), Joe Barton (R-TX), and Diana DeGette (D-CO), sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, wondering why the site's new Data Use Policy was longer than the U.S. Constitution.

“Many of these actions [in the FTC settlement] have long since been rectified by Facebook in response to user concerns, but both the practices and user information collected by those practices give rise to questions nonetheless,” the letter said.

The letter pointed out that Facebook's current privacy policy is almost six times as long as it was in 2005, longer than other social networks' policies and the Constitution, not including the amendments. The representatives asked Zuckerberg to give them data regarding the percentage of Facebook users who read the full policy.  “We are concerned ... that long, complex privacy policy statements make it difficult for consumers to understand how their information is being used,” the letter said.

Facebook aside, the fact is that privacy policies are getting longer and more complex and more difficult for users to comprehend as websites attempt to put every possible way that they may or "might" use information now or in the future into the policies.   The congressional inquiry may help to put a check on the "kitchen sink" approach to drafting.

Other questions that interest in the lawmakers include questions that site operators (and their advisors) should be asking with every privacy policy: how the site tracks users' browsing habits, including what information it collects, whether the information can be used to identify an individual, and whether users can opt out of tracking, specifically asking:  “How is Facebook making it easier for users to understand their ability to opt out?” The lawmakers requested that Zuckerberg respond to the questions by Jan. 3.

Stearns and DeGette are the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight and investigations. Barton and Markey are co-chairmen of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus.

So, when's the last time you reviewed your company's privacy policy?

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Cynthia J. Larose

Member / Chair, Privacy & Cybersecurity Practice

Cynthia J. Larose is Chair of the firm's Privacy & Cybersecurity Practice, a Certified Information Privacy Professional-US (CIPP-US), and a Certified Information Privacy Professional-Europe (CIPP-E). She works with clients in various industries to develop comprehensive information security programs on the front end, and provides timely counsel when it becomes necessary to respond to a data breach.