Facebook Gets Vague Privacy Inquiry from House Judicial Committee

Facebook introduced more features for users to easily increase the privacy of their personal information, last week, following prolonged criticism of changes it made in April.

Despite those moves, it is getting new scrutiny around the changes. US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers sent a letter to the company on Friday asking it to provide more details on what it has been doing to ensure user privacy.

A Pointedly Vague Letter

The letter, while brief, appears to directly address how Facebook is continuing to make some user data public by requirement, and more of it public by default. Facebook’s argument is that its aggressive, open approach to product development is what allows it to best serve users.

While the committee has not yet called for a hearing on Facebook’s privacy practices, the letter shows that the company has more convincing to do if it hopes to remove the risk of regulation entirely.

Here’s the relevant text of Conyers’ letter (via the raw story):

Specifically, we would appreciate a detailed explanation of the information about Facebook users that your company has provided to third parties without the knowledge of the account holders — particularly in circumstances in which the user did not expressly opt for this type of information sharing. Please explain your prior policies with respect to user consent for information sharing, and with whom any information was shared. Also, please detail how the new policies Facebook is adopting differ from past practices, including whether the burden is on the user to opt in or opt out of the relevant privacy settings.

Conyers is not specific, so we’re not sure which Facebook changes he’s referring to. Here’s what his letter seems to be pointing to.

In December, Facebook required all users to make some profile information public, including their name, profile photo, network and gender — a class of information that the company calls “General Information.” In April, it went further, asking all users to change previously-private interests into links to publicly-viewable Pages — but it allowed users to hide this information once again, last week. (See our full review of the latest changes, for more).

Facebook also introduced a service in April called “Instant Personalization,” where it shares General Information about users with pre-selected third parties without users’ explicit prior consent. This service launched to be opt-out by default — and it still is despite the changes.

The first sentence of the excerpt, above, appears to be about the nature of how Instant Personalization works, along with an allusion to the more general changes that Facebook made to General Information in recent months.

The second sentence appears to be about those general changes.

The final sentence appears to ask if the new changes impact Instant Personalization’s opt-out setting.

Charles Schumer and a few other senators have already criticized Facebook for Instant Personalization and for how it has made some user information public by requirement, and they echoed those criticisms despite last week’s moves. So, while vague, Conyers’ letter suggests he has been talking to critical congresspeople, privacy groups and other critics; there are other Facebook privacy issues that he could have referred to, but didn’t, such as how the social graph plugins work.

Facebook’s changes last week were meant to satisfy things like congressional inquiries, but Instant Personalization is still opt-out and General Information is still public by requirement. Conyers’ letter also comes across as loaded. He sent it to Facebook on Friday, after the company announced the changes on Wednesday and even held a Capitol Hill session on Thursday explaining them to House and Senate congresspeople and staffers. He knew about the changes and knew what had not been changed.

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