Facebook Temporarily Disables Phone, Address Sharing and Aims to Increase Clarity

Following intense backlash from the press, Facebook has temporarily disabled the newly added ability for users to share their mobile phone number and address with applications and third-party websites. We praised Facebook for boldly facilitating innovation but we also advised that users be more clearly warned when permitting access to such sensitive information — through a separate prompt in the interface, for example. Now Facebook is doing the right thing, saying it will reenable the feature in a few weeks once it can make “changes to help ensure you only share this information when you intend to do so.”

In the announcement posted to the Facebook Developers Blog, Douglas Purdy, Director of Developer Relations, cited some of the same potential uses for the new permissions as we did, namely accelerating e-commerce checkout and powering apps which provide real-time updates about deals. Users will greatly benefit from these functionalities, but they could also be made victims by apps that quietly request their contact data only to spam them or sell their personal information.

Facebook didn’t provide details on how it will change the sharing process to reduce the risk of abuse. We suspect it will add a separate step to the permissions flow for especially sensitive data. Two others options would be to make these permissions more prominent by moving them to the top the list in the requests dialogue in colored or bolded text (mocked up below), or to add a roadblock such as a time delay or checkbox. It will take clever design to effectively slow down and inform users without so encumbering them that they might as well input the data by hand.

Facebook appears ready to challenge the notion that it is unresponsive and careless about  the well being of its users. Instead of waiting a month to issue a response to well-founded criticism, as it did during its first PR crisis over Beacon in 2007, Facebook only took three days. It has done the same recently with rapid responses to feedback on API migrations that could break apps and home page changes that hurt user retention for social games. If it can solve the problem of educating users on when to share contact info and with who, a new generation of apps and integrations will flourish thanks to this data.