U.S. Congressmen: Don't Turn Facebook Into Phonebook

Don't share users' home addresses and mobile phone numbers with third-party developers, the co-chairs of the Congressional Privacy Caucus told Facebook today.

Don’t share users’ home addresses and mobile phone numbers with third-party developers, the co-chairs of the U.S. Congressional Privacy Caucus told Facebook today.

U.S. Representatives Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, and Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachussets, wrote a letter to Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg cautioning the site about recently suspended plans to share users’ mobile numbers and home addresses with third-party developers.

The letter dated today comes a day after Facebook publicized its response to the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Federal Trade Commission’s request for input on a proposed privacy policy. The social network claimed that it was already in compliance with the federal agencies’ framework an asked that any additional regulation in this area leave room for innovation.

So it seems like today’s letter to Mark Zuckerberg is a nearly instant replay, although most likely the two Congressmen may have begun working on their communique as early as the middle of the January — like during the three to four day period when the social network had enabled the sharing of users home addresses and mobile phone numbers with third-party developers.

Like Markey told the Los Angeles Times, “Facebook needs to protect the personal information of its users to ensure that Facebook doesn’t become Phonebook. This is sensitive data and needs to be protected.”

Today’s letter from Barton and Markey included 11 questions –there were actually at least 13 of them, but a couple were grouped togethter — about the suspended plan to share users’ mobile numbers and addressses. The thoroughness of the questioning is pretty admirable.

Our favorites from the Congressmen’s shrewd questions, in layman’s terms, include:

  • Did Facebook actually plan to share additional information besides phone numbers and home addresses with the third-party developers, and did any sharing of contact information start before the official announcement went up on the social network’s developer blog?
  • Because Facebook had said the sharing of user contact information was temporarily suspended, what data about Facebook users will be shared with third-party developers once the planned sharing is reinstated?
  • What process is Facebook using tho adjust the sharing feature before reinstating it?
  • If Facebook reinstates the sharing of users’ contact information, will people who initially agree to share the information be able to not only stop sharing it but also get third-party developers to delete the data?
  • Did Facebook consider the risks to minors before deciding to share user contact information with third party developers, and how did that consideration affect the outcome of the decision?
  • How can Facebook make the request for permission to share data clearer to end user?

A Facebook spokesperson provided us with the following response to the letter:

As an innovative company that is responsive to its users, we believe there is tremendous value in giving people the freedom and control to take information they put on Facebook with them to other websites. We enable people to share this information only after they explicitly authorize individual applications to access it. This system of user permissions was designed in collaboration with a number of privacy experts. Following the rollout of this new feature, we heard some feedback and agree that there may be additional improvements we could make. Great people at the company are working on that and we look forward to sharing their progress soon.

How can Facebook and federal lawmakers reach a consensus on privacy policy?