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Facebook Makes Strange Bedfellows

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Facebook is quickly becoming the poster child for the growing online privacy debate on Capitol Hill. Now the social networking behemoth is under the microscope after the launch of a new opt-in feature that lets users share their addresses and mobile phone numbers with external Web sites and applications.

In a three-page letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Tex., the co-chairmen of the House Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, requested more details on the feature and posed a number of questions about it.

Normally, Markey, an old-school Massachusetts liberal, and Barton, a fiery, hard-line conservative, could be expected to disagree on everything. Getting them to a consensus on the question of whether the sky is blue might be difficult. But this is the second joint letter the congressmen have sent to Facebook. The first was in the fall, following a Wall Street Journal article that reported companies on Facebook's site were accessing users' personal information without their knowledge or consent.

"Facebook needs to protect the personal information of its users to ensure that Facebook doesn't become a phone book," said Markey.

Online privacy is a red-hot issue. And yet, in contrast to the current political atmosphere, it’s managed to remain a bi-partisan issue. In addition to one that will be introduced soon by Markey, bills are being crafted by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., and Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who plans to reintroduce his bill next week.

The new feature is currently on hold after negative feedback from users during a mid-January soft launch, but Facebook still plans to unveil it eventually, saying it will streamline e-commerce by allowing users to take advantage of up-to-the-minute deals. In a statement responding to the legislative scrutiny, the company stood behind the idea.

"We believe there is tremendous value in giving people the freedom and control to take information they put on Facebook with them to other Web sites. We enable people to share this information only after they explicitly authorize individual applications to access it," the statement said. "This system of user permissions was designed in collaboration with a number of privacy experts."