By Gautham Nagesh - 03/29/11 10:35 AM EDT
Tim Sparapani, one of Facebook’s chief lobbyists, has an answer for critics who say the social networking site plays fast and loose with people’s personal information.
“When people say Facebook has privacy problems, I think, no, Facebook has privacy solutions,” Sparapani said.
Sparapani leads the social network’s growing D.C. lobbying operation, which works to educate lawmakers about Facebook and to shape Internet policy and legislation.
In recent months, Sparapani has met with lawmakers and Obama administration officials to discuss everything from net neutrality and cybersecurity to foreign governments’ censorship of the Internet.
According to lobbying disclosure records, Sparapani and his team have been focused particularly on Internet privacy issues — hardly surprising given the bipartisan push for privacy legislation in Congress.
Silicon Valley firms like Facebook have urged lawmakers to avoid overly prescriptive regulations for online privacy, arguing such rules could have a damaging impact on the growing tech industry.
Sparapani says his central message to policymakers is that the best solution for privacy in the digital age is to give users maximum control over their personal information.
“There is a view that is new to privacy, which is if you give users control over their information, they are best positioned to protect their own privacy and make decisions for themselves,” he said.
Sparapani said his work at the ACLU as senior legislative counsel complements his new role.
“I really believe that my work here is an extension of the same work I was doing at the ACLU,” Sparapani said.
He says he fights for privacy protections at Facebook just like he did at the ACLU, but that his current employer is “building the tools to make it real.”
Sparapani dismissed any comparisons between Facebook’s data collection and the government’s, noting the former is entirely voluntary and allows users to correct errors easily, unlike many federal programs.
“When critics come at us, I feel really good about the work that’s being done,” he said.
A native of Stevens Point, Wis, Sparapani left his career with Washington law firm Hale & Dorr (now part of WilmerHale) to join the ACLU because he wanted to ensure that the Bush administration’s policies after 9/11 didn’t trample on citizens’ constitutional rights.
“The toughest challenges have always been the most intriguing to me,” Sparapani said of his decision to join the ACLU, where he earned a reputation as a leading privacy advocate in Washington.
He said his work at the ACLU came during an expansion of federal domestic security programs that raised “fundamental questions about how much data we are going to give up about ourselves.”
“Seeing the Fourth Amendment and First Amendment under fire, and wanting to fight and stand up for those values was an enormous privilege,” Sparapani said.
He said he is proud of the ACLU’s campaign against the 2005 Real ID Act, which mandated rigorous national standards for drivers’ licenses and other identification cards issued by states. He likened the law to an attempt to pass a nationwide ID card similar to those used in apartheid-era South Africa or the former Soviet Union.
The ACLU’s push eventually prompted dozens of states to pass laws rejecting the ID requirements, and it has yet to take effect. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently indicated her plans to delay the implementation date until January 2013 over the objections of Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee.
“I don’t think there’s a moment you can point to that’s like it in the last 50 years where the states stood up and literally passed laws disobeying the federal government,” Sparapani said. “And I think that the ACLU and my team were primarily responsible for getting that moving.”
ACLU legislative counsel Chris Calabrese said Sparapani played a critical role in the campaign against the Real ID Act.
“Tim is smart — he understands the issues, and he has a good strategic sense about how to advance causes he works on,” Calabrese said.
That strategic sense will be essential as Facebook grapples with its new status as one of America’s most closely watched companies.
Critics of the site’s privacy policies continue to emerge now that the site has become ubiquitous, with more than 500 million users worldwide. Last year, changes to Facebook’s privacy controls prompted a widespread backlash that the site has worked to quell with new user settings.
More recently, lawmakers have expressed concerns about plans to allow the makers of applications on Facebook to request users’ profile data. Senate Democrats have asked founder Mark Zuckerberg to reconsider the move or at least block companies from requesting profile information from teenage users.
Facebook has indicated a reluctance to do so, arguing that younger users may choose to leverage their Facebook profiles to apply to college or jobs.
The conflict is another example of resistance to Facebook’s real-identity ecosystem, in which Web users are identified by their biographical data rather than self-chosen identifiers.
Sparapani said Facebook’s reliance on accurate biographical data has made the Internet a better place and helped to foster more civility on the Web.
“Our choice to make this a real-name culture has benefited everybody,” Sparapani said. “It turns out that people, when they’re operating under their own name, tend to worry about their image and they tend to behave better because of it.”
Sparapani said he is confident that lawmakers will come to see Facebook as an ally on privacy issues.
“I think much of the criticism is based on a lack of knowledge,” he said. “What’s really important in this role in Washington is to educate legislators and regulators about the powers of this technology, a free communications service.
“If we dispel some of the mistaken impressions about the technology, much of the criticism falls away.”