Lawmakers Take Softer Tone With Facebook


Facebook has responded to an inquiry from the co-chairs of the U.S. House Privacy Caucus. Unlike their harsh reactions to Facebook’s response to a previous privacy-related inquiry, Congressmen Ed Markey and Joe Barton reacted more mildly to the social networking site this time around.


A letter sent to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier this month asked about the company’s now-stalled plans to allow third parties to access users’ mobile phone numbers and addresses. The inquiry came just three months after the same lawmakers grilled Facebook regarding an alleged privacy breach associated with user IDs.

In its response to Barton and Markey, sent February 23 by Marne Levine, Facebook’s VP global public policy, the company explained the requirements it has in place for giving users control over the information they share with application providers, as well as its “strict, enforceable terms that limit use of the information” users agree to share with app companies. Levine also pointed to a ruling by Canada’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner which found that Facebook “adequately informs users regarding what (if any) information they are sharing by choosing to use a given application.”

The company also said it is currently evaluating implementing methods to give users more control over data shared with application providers, and may include more information on its permission screen to provide clearer notice to users.

In a press release today, Markey stated, “I’m pleased that Facebook’s response indicated that it’s looking to enhance its process for highlighting for users when they are being asked for permission to share their contact information.” The Massachusetts Democrat went on to say, “I look forward to monitoring the company’s work in this area.”

In January, Facebook announced on its Developer Blog that it had decided to allow app providers to access users’ addresses and mobile numbers to “for example, easily share your address and mobile phone with a shopping site to streamline the checkout process, or sign up for up-to-the-minute alerts on special deals directly to your mobile phone.” Following negative feedback from users, Facebook just days later said it would put the plans on hold in order to update the system “to help ensure you only share this information when you intend to do so.”

In its recent letter to the Congressman, Facebook noted, “Finally, when it appeared that our decision to authorize applications to request this information was causing some degree of concern among users, we suspended the launch and initiated a review that is still underway to enable applications to make innovative use of this category of information, while ensuring that users have ample notice and remain in control of their information.” The firm went on to stress that the feature was disabled because of the feedback, “not because of any concerns regarding compliance with its privacy policy…,” as implied in the inquiry.

Of particular interest to Markey (pictured) is the potential impact on children and teens. He plans to propose legislation featuring a do-not-track requirement specifically to protect children’s privacy early this year, and anticipates bipartisan support for the legislation.

In their inquiry, the lawmakers asked Facebook specifically about whether it considered “the risks to children and teenagers posed by enabling third parties to access their home addresses and mobile phone numbers through Facebook?”

The company emphasized it does not allow children under age 13 to use Facebook, and stated, “Facebook considers risks to minors in all its new product features, and this is no exception, as we are actively considering whether to enable applications to request contact information from minors at all.” Markey said in today’s statement he was “encouraged that Facebook is deciding whether to allow applications on the site to request contact information from minors,” adding “I don’t believe that applications on Facebook should get this information from teens, and I encourage Facebook to wall off access to teen’s contact information if they enable this new feature.”

Last time around, Facebook’s answers to the earlier inquiry prompted stern remarks from Markey and Barton. “Facebook needs to protect personal consumer information to ensure that getting connected doesn’t mean being unwittingly friended by data brokers and marketers,” stated Markey in November. “No one likes being friends with someone who invades their privacy.”

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