Key Privacy Wonk Joins Senators, Blasting Facebook’s Latest Moves

Facebook last week announced a sweeping program to disseminate its “like” buttons and other plug-ins to third-party sites, and a rising number of senators, privacy advocates, and other groups are coming out against the move.

Facebook’s so-called “open graph” strategy is expected to dramatically increase the amount of data generated about individuals’ personal preferences and online interactions on Facebook and other sites, making all of that information accessible to the social site and its growing list of site partners for site customization and ad targeting purposes.

Today, four U.S. Senators – Charles Schumer, Michael Bennet, Mark Begich, and Al Franken – blasted the program, calling for Facebook to adopt an opt-in policy for third party data sharing. In its current form, the program is opt-out – meaning consumers are automatically included in the program.

The letter said, “We are concerned…that this feature will now allow certain third party partners to have access not only to a user’s publicly available profile information, but also to the user’s friend list and the publicly available information about those friends.”

Schumer has also reached out to the Federal Trade Commission, urging it to examine the privacy disclosures of Facebook and its rivals and to provide guidelines for such disclosure.

Joining the lawmakers in criticizing the development is a key privacy advocate, Chris Hoofnagle. Hoofnagle is one of three people named to run The Digital Trust Foundation, a group intended to fund initiatives to promote online privacy and security. In an odd twist, the foundation was created through a court settlement of a class action suit related to Facebook’s short-lived Beacon ad program. It has not been officially established yet, since the settlement is still awaiting possible appeal.

“Until all appeals (if any) are addressed, we are in purgatory,” said Hoofnagle, who is director, Information Privacy Programs at Berkeley’s Center for Law and Technology.

“Facebook is in wealth maximization mode, which should give pause to any user concerned about increasing revelation of personal data,” wrote Hoofnagle in an e-mail to ClickZ News about the site’s recent changes. He went on to suggest that Facebook users “seem to be tiring of the company’s shifting goalposts on information sharing.”

One change implemented by Facebook is that the company now intends to allow third-party sites and app providers to store profile data indefinitely. Facebook said the data storage change will ease the process used by developers to maintain up-to-date information, according to reports. The Democratic Senators’ letter stated the hope that Facebook will “ensure that its policies protect the sensitive personal biographical data of its users and provide them with full control over their personal information.”

Meanwhile, Facebook has said little in response to the backlash from users and the senators against the changes. The company did not respond to ClickZ’s requests for comment today.

To help combat concerns about its privacy practices, Facebook hired former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Timothy Sparapani as its new director of public policy about a year ago. Sparapani is also one of the three people chosen to head up the Beacon settlement foundation, along with tech journalist and online security advocate Larry Magid. It is unclear whether that foundation – once officially established – will have influence over future changes at Facebook affecting the distribution or accessibility of user data.

Comprehensive privacy legislation, expected to affect practices of sites like Facebook and ad targeting like behavioral ad targeting, has been anticipated since last year. Capitol Hill insiders say a draft House bill could be in the hands of privacy advocates and affected parties in a matter of days.

Separately this week, liberal advocacy group started a petition calling Facebook’s latest move, “a major violation of your privacy. Again.”

Follow Kate Kaye on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.

Related reading