The concerns that two key lawmakers the House Energy and Commerce Committee raised Wednesday about Facebook's proposal to share its users' mobile phone and addresses with third parties will likely continue as lawmakers begin to craft legislation to provide online privacy safeguards for consumers.
In a letter Wednesday to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Reps. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, requested answers to a long list of questions about changes Facebook outlined last month to expand the user data shared with third parties to include mobile phone numbers and addresses.
Markey said in a statement that he wants answers "to better understand Facebook's practices regarding possible access to users' personal information by third parties. This is sensitive data and needs to be protected."
In a blog post about this proposal last month, Facebook's Douglas Purdy said the proposal would allow Facebook users to improve their online e-commerce experiences by streamlining the checkout process at online retail sites and added that mobile phone and address information would only be shared with user permission. However, he also announced that Facebook was suspending the service and planned to relaunch it to make it easier for users to know when they are granting access to the use of their data.
In their letter to Zuckerberg, Barton and Markey wanted much more information about the service including whether the proposed feature called for sharing any other information beyond mobile phone numbers and addresses with third parties and whether any data was shared before the service was suspended; the process for vetting new services like this; why the company suspended the rollout of the new service; whether the changes will prompt a more prominent notice to users; and whether the company considered the risks to teens and children of sharing this information.
This is not the first time Barton and Markey have questioned Facebook's privacy practices. The lawmakers, who are the House co-chairmen of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, wrote Facebook last fall about reports that Facebook user data had been breached by third parties.
Facebook released a statement Wednesday that said it believes there is "tremendous value in giving people the freedom and control to take information they put on Facebook with them to other websites. We enable people to share this information only after they explicitly authorize individual applications to access it."
While noting that this permission system was designed with privacy experts, the social networking site acknowledged based on user feedback that "there may be additional improvements we could make."
The answers Markey and Barton receive could help inform legislation that they and other lawmakers plan to offer to bolster online privacy.
Privacy advocates say they would like to see more attention paid to information collected by sites like Facebook and more focus on whether their opt-in systems are as robust as they should be, according to Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. He said it's an issue he plans to raise with lawmakers and in his comments with the Federal Trade Commission on its proposed online privacy guidelines.
Markey is working on a measure, which a spokeswoman said he will introduce early this Congress, aimed at preventing children from being tracked on the Internet for advertising purposes. Barton has said he plans to work with a bipartisan group of House lawmakers on broader online privacy legislation.