Facebook, Apple, Google Called to Washington for Privacy Questioning

Facebook, Apple and Google executives are among the witnesses named for a May 19 hearing in consumer mobile privacy and protection.

Executives from Facebook, Apple and Google are headed to Washington for a second Senate hearing in as many weeks on the issues of consumer privacy and mobility.

The hearing May 19 at 10 a.m. ET, called by Sen. John Rockefeller, D-WV, chairman of the Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance Subcommittee, follows a similar one May 9, in which officials with Apple and Google defended their privacy policies during questioning by skeptical congressmen.

Facebook CTO Bret Taylor, Apple's Vice President of Worldwide Government Affairs Catherine A. Novelli, and Google Director of Public Policy for the Americas Alan Davidson are expected to speak during the hearing, as is Federal Trade Commission Director David Vladeck and executives from the Association for Competitive Technology and Common Sense Media.

"The hearing will also explore the possible role of the federal government in protecting consumers in the mobile marketplace and promoting their privacy," Rockefeller told the AFP.Google's Davidson made the trip to Washington only days ago to participate in a subcommittee hearing hosted by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., regarding the location data collection policies of Google and Apple devices. In his written testimony, Davidson emphasized the criticality of users' trust to the success of Google's business model - a point that may bear repeating at the hearing May 19."Without the trust of our users, we simply would not be able to offer these services or platforms because on the Internet, competing services are only one click away," Davison said. "If we fail to offer clear, usable privacy controls, transparency in our privacy practices, and strong security, our users will simply switch to another provider."On May 13, Facebook introduced new security features meant to assuage the growing concerns over the privacy of information that Facebook users share on the site. Earlier this month, 15 consumer privacy groups filed a complaint with the FTC, saying that Facebook's privacy settings "adversely impact" its users."Facebook now discloses personal information to third parties that Facebook users previously did not make available," the complaint continues. "These changes violate user expectations, diminish user privacy and contradict Facebook's own representations."Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, told eWEEK in March that social networks and privacy protection don't need to be at odds."The problem is when companies like Facebook become obsessed with monetizing every bit of their members' data, and throw caring about privacy out the digital window. A responsible social network can balance generating profits with also protecting privacy," Chester said.Rockefeller recently also introduced legislation to protect consumer privacy. The Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011 would give consumers the option to not have their Internet surfing tracked by Web companies and shared with advertisers."Recent reports of privacy invasions have made it imperative that we do more to put consumers in the driver's seat when it comes to their personal information," Rockefeller said in a statement following the bill's May 9 introduction.The bill, if passed, would legally obligate companies to honor consumers' choices and empower the FTC to pursue action against companies that fail to do so."Consumers have a right to know when and how their personal and sensitive information is being used online," Rockefeller added, "and most importantly to be able to say 'no thanks' when companies seek to gather that information without their approval.