'Frictionless' Facebook sharing a concern for consumer privacy advocates

How many steps should consumers have to take to share personal information online?

Depending on whom you ask, the answers range from "as few as possible" to "enough to ensure they know what they're sharing."

That's the crux of the debate over frictionless sharing, which plays a central role in a host of features unveiled by Facebook at the end of last month. Under frictionless sharing a user opts in once to allow an application to share all or parts of their activity in the app on Facebook.

Privacy advocates responded quickly to the changes by calling for the Federal Trade Commission to probe Facebook to determine if the new settings violate consumer privacy. The core of their complaint against frictionless sharing is that it turns online sharing into a passive, rather than active, experience.

The letter also takes issue with Facebook's recent attempts to publish lightweight actions such as purchasing a movie ticket or downloading music under the one-time opt-in model. Previously most Facebook activity was purposely shared on an individual basis.

"Encouraging or prompting users to share personal information is detrimental to consumer privacy not only because the information will be exploited by Facebook and third parties for advertising and other purposes, but also because Facebook could unexpectedly and improperly make significant changes to its Terms of Service or Privacy Policy that would further expose users' personal information," the groups argued.

In their letter the groups, which include the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the ACLU, revealed a strong resistance to Web firms encouraging consumers to share more information online with their social networks.

But tech observers say that attitude is out of step with the current trend towards more openness online. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has become the poster child for the movement towards sharing more online; Zuckerberg has consistently maintained that when given the choice, consumers opt to share more about themselves, not less. "These are the types of apps that help people express who they are," a Facebook spokesperson told The Hill.

Facebook also points out that users still have complete control over which applications share their data and who has access to different types of profile information. So users are able, for example, to restrict work colleagues from viewing what type of music they listen to on Spotify. But privacy advocates respond that the controls are either too complex or wrongly make public sharing the default option.

One example the groups specifically cite is The Washington Post's Social Reader, which automatically posts an update to a user's Facebook feed when they read an article via the app. The groups argue users could unwittingly reveal interest in topics to professional or personal acquaintances that they would not normally disclose, particularly in areas where political activity online can be monitored such as Iran or China.

But Washington Post Co. chief digital officer Vijay Ravindran argued the app is simply a natural evolution from reading news shared via Twitter or Facebook. Ravindran pointed out that social networks are increasingly becoming a primary source of news and content recommendations as users have more access to what their friends read, watch and listen to.

"The Washington Post Social Reader is an opt-in experience, and we feel comfortable about the amount of communication we're giving consumers who have decided to try social reader," Ravindran told The Hill.

"What you've gained is a way of reading curated news that's friend-centric, not editor-centric," he added.

Facebook announced the new features at the F8 developer conference last month and is planning to roll them out over the next 30 days or so. While the new Timeline profile that allows users to tell their whole life story on one screen is drawing the most headlines, the public's reaction to other aspects of frictionless sharing should determine whether more lawmakers join the calls for an FTC investigation.