Congress Banging at Facebook’s Door Again

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facebook_small.jpgADOTAS – Knock, knock, Facebook — Congress is at the door, asking questions. Again.

On Jan. 14, the social network announced it was making user addresses and phone numbers available to developers. Users would have to give their permission before developers could access this information and they would not be able to share their friends’ information. Shared data could be managed at on the Application Dashboard, where users keep track of which sites and apps have what data.

So why would users want to hand over such personal data to developers? On another blog, Douglas Purdy explained that sharing would allow you to “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.”

However, in that same post Purdy said the sharing plan had been put on hold after a slew of “useful feedback” (i.e., incessant user screaming). It appeared Facebook was going to regroup and brainstorm a better way of explaining the feature to users.

Because they apparently have nothing better to do, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), have sent a letter (oh my!) demanding answers to 11 questions about the program. Names sound familiar? Markey and Barton, co-chairmen of the House Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, sent Zuck a slew of questions during the big Facebook “privacy breach” of 2010.

The boys in DC want to know how the social network came up with the idea, what data will be shared and how users can back out if they change their minds.

Wait… I just answered all those questions in the beginning of this story. Well, I guess it’s good to get it confirmed from the source…

Markey and Barton also want to know why Facebook suspended the feature, which I’m curious about as well. It seems Facebook went about this the right way — it’s all opt-in instead of the social network’s previous habit of switching user profile defaults to share, share and share away!

The controversy with the user IDs centered around apps and games sending them to third parties such as ad networks, which could potentially discover the user’s real name and his or her friends. No one could explain why ad networks and ad tech firms would want to do that — that’s a lot of work for a little data and anonymity is a targeter’s best friend (this isn’t the offline world, where marketers buy names and addresses from government agencies).

So the more important question is: can developers be trusted with such personal information as phone numbers and addresses? With the permission controls, the choice is up to users.

And even before that, you have to give your phone number and address to Facebook. I noticed at the beginning of the year Facebook kept asking for my phone number to enhance my security — I started writing a post mocking such a misleading claim but didn’t think it was worth my time. If I had a nickel for every misleading claim I read on the Internet, I could fulfill my lifelong dream of building a life-size replica of the Sistine Chapel completely out of nickels. Perhaps I could build two.

This gets into gray area as Facebook steps up its mobile initiatives, including a rumored “Facebook Phone” — a social layer integrated into an Android OS — to be unveiled by HTC this month at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Theoretically, Facebook would have access to not only the user’s mobile number, but also contacts’ information — email addresses, phone numbers, home addresses, etc.

Are you willing to tempt Facebook with all that precious, precious data?

No? Don’t buy the phone. I’ve pondered whether Facebook potentially is headed for mobile folly with its mobile social layer — the potential convenience of the layer doesn’t outweigh the public’s suspicions about the company’s objectives.

But the Facebook developer blogs suggest that the social network has seen the glory that is opt in. Control goes to the user, where it always belonged — even with the Facebook phone, it’s opt-in.

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