Facebook to Lawmakers and Users: We Have ‘Privacy Solutions,’ Not Problems

By Katie Kindelan Comment

We don’t have problems, just solutions. That, in a nustshell, is the glass half-full view Facebook is taking to Washington as lawmakers zero in on the company’s online privacy practices. The question: Will lawmakers, and Facebook users like you, buy it?

“When people say Facebook has privacy problems, I think, no, Facebook has privacy solutions.”

Those are the words straight from the mouth of Tim Sparapani, Facebook’s public policy director, when asked by The Hill newspaper to respond to critics of the social networking giant’s privacy practices.

The bold statement comes at a crucial time for the company now under close scrutiny by users, lawmakers and privacy advocates alike who are concerned Facebook is not as diligent or zealous as it should be with the personal data of its more than 500 million users.

Sparapani, one face in Facebook’s growing Washington office, told the newspaper the best solution for privacy in the digital age is to give users “maximum control” over their personal data.

“There is a view that is new to privacy, which is if you give users control over their information, they are best positioned to protect their own privacy and make decisions for themselves,” he said.

It was back in November that Sparapini’s boss, Facebook’s CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, was a bit more ambivalent on the topic, at the time calling the company’s privacy policies “grey” and “not completely a black-and-white thing.”

Now Facebook appears to be concentrating on framing the debates in Congress and in users’ living rooms, getting ahead of potential firestorms, rather than having to constantly trail them with a fire extinguisher.

In 2007 the company had one staff member, Adam Conner, making its case in Washington. Today, the Facebook policy team is 10-members strong, just moved into swanky new digs in the nation’s capital and has started hiring outside lobbying firms to supplement its efforts.

In February, Zuckerberg was forced to respond to a letter from two members of the House of Representatives’ Privacy Caucus, asking for details on the company’s plans to share user’s private information. This month he was called to task again, this time by the Senate Commerce Committee, on the same issue.

Today no fewer than seven pieces of online privacy-related legislation are circulating Congress, including measures that would create the first ever “online privacy bill of rights” and establish a do-not-track system to let consumers ‘opt-out’ of online advertising.

Zuckerberg and other Web 2.0 leaders have called on the government to avoid jumping the gun on heavy regulations for online privacy, arguing instead that the tech industry should be allowed, and trusted, to self-regulate as it continues to grow.

And to make that argument, Facebook is wasting no time building its lobbying operation to ‘poke’ more ‘friends’ in Washington.

Exhibit A: Sparapani himself who joined Facebook two years ago from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) where he was a well-known privacy advocate.

He told The Hill he ‘fights for privacy protections at Facebook just like he did at the ACLU, but that his current employer is “building the tools to make it real.”‘

Exhibit B: Robert Gibbs, President Obama‘s former White House press secretary, whom Facebook is reportedly recruiting for a senior position on its communications team.

Were Gibbs to join Facebook, he would no doubt find himself among familiar Washington faces.

In the last few years, the company has also brought on big name Democrats like COO Sheryl Sandberg, a former Clinton administration official and VP of Global Public Policy Marne Levine, a former Obama White House staffer.

They worked alongside old Republican hands like General Counsel Ted Ullyot, a White House lawyer and chief of staff for Alberto Gonzales in the George W. Bush administration, and Catherine Martin, previously President Bush’s deputy assistant and deputy communications director for policy and planning.

Although their efforts remain small in comparison to their online competitors – Facebook spent $350,000 in lobbying in 2010 compared to $5.1 million spent by Google, for example – their mission, and task, is obviously big.

Is the glass half-full approach enough? Is it fair and accurate? Tell us what you think.