Facebook has hired former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Timothy Sparapani as its new director of public policy. The move could score points for the social networking site in the eyes of online privacy advocates that have expressed concern over its data privacy policies. It also will help Facebook fill a gap if its Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly runs for California Attorney General, as is anticipated.
Sparapani will start work with Facebook in late April, and will be based in Washington, D.C., reporting to Kelly. The company would not provide additional details about Sparapani or his role.
As a senior legislative counsel with the ACLU, Sparapani testified before U.S. Congress regarding issues such as The Real ID Act, arguing the proposed federal identification program represented a threat to privacy and constitutional rights. In a 2007 ACLU press release, he contended that government data mining “will turn us all into suspects.”
Though it is unclear how Sparapani stands when it comes to data mining for advertising purposes, there are indications he could be sympathetic toward privacy advocates and other detractors of unregulated online data gathering and storage for ad purposes.
Center for Digital Democracy Executive Director Jeff Chester said his organization, which has argued that Facebook’s privacy policies are not stringent enough, has been working with Sparapani recently on privacy and online advertising issues. However, Chester expressed only cautious optimism regarding Sparapani’s new role. “Does the announcement of the principles and the hiring of Tim indicate a kind of next generation Facebook?” asked Chester rhetorically. “I think it’s too early.”
He continued, “If Facebook thinks it can trade on [Sparapani’s] relationship with [privacy groups]…then they’re incredibly naive… Tim knows this community is willing to bite the hand that it just shook ten minutes ago.”
The company came under fire last month after altering its terms of service, spurring an uproar among users and privacy protectionists regarding the amount of time Facebook could store user data. The firm quickly did an about-face, reverting to its original policy and presenting a new set of Facebook Principles and a Statement of Rights and Responsibilities for public comment. The firm has received thousands of comments and will close the commenting period March 29.
Chester’s organization sent a letter to Facebook this week suggesting that the company needs to rewrite its proposed principles. For instance, the group stated the principles do not “discuss the gathering, mining, and sharing of user data. Users need to know how third-party developers use the data accessed or collected, including how the data is used for advertising and marketing.”
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