GOP senator presses Zuckerberg over 'privacy pivot'

GOP senator presses Zuckerberg over 'privacy pivot'
© Stefani Reynolds

Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyExpanding tax credit for businesses retaining workers gains bipartisan support GOP deeply divided over Trump's social media crackdown Trump's social media executive order is a huge opportunity MORE (R-Mo.) in a lengthy letter on Monday pressed Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergZuckerberg expressed concern to Trump over rhetoric amid protests: Axios Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers Twitter adds fact-checking labels to hundreds of tweets despite Trump attacks MORE over his company's recently announced plans to become a "privacy-oriented" platform after more than a year of scandals over its handling of user privacy. 

Hawley in the six-page letter raised questions about how Facebook plans to monetize its platform once it shifts its focus to private messaging, as Zuckerberg has said the platform intends to do.

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Zuckerberg two months ago announced Facebook would be reorienting itself to become a more privacy-minded platform, pledging to begin encrypting messages end-to-end with privacy features for calls, video chats, groups, stories, businesses, payments and commerce. 

As part of this push, Facebook is planning on integrating its messaging services – Instagram Direct, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger – so users can communicate across the different platforms.

Zuckerberg at a recent speech reiterated the promise to shift Facebook from a "town square" platform into one focused on encrypted messages and small groups.

"But we both know that your business model is monetizing private data, not promoting privacy," Hawley wrote in the letter. "And we both know that platforms that tout encrypted messaging can still engage in unscrupulous data harvesting." 

"While I hope that you and your platform can play a role in building the privacy-first future, I worry that your recent announcements indicate a different intention," Hawley, one of the most vocal tech critics in the Republican party, wrote. "To be blunt, I fear that your new platform’s aim is to capture and subvert the privacy revolution that threatens your business model and claim an empty public relations victory."

The senator in the letter pressed Facebook over how it will protect users' data once it integrates the messaging platforms and turns to a focus on Pages and Groups.

"If you succeed in capturing the encrypted messaging market, I fear that the net effect would be erosion rather than expansion of user privacy," Hawley wrote.

"A dominant Facebook messenger could mean a transfer of information about users’ most sensitive contact lists— the people to whom users are closest and in whom they confide their deepest secrets, as well as the dates and times of those interactions—from platforms with no interest in monetizing such information to a platform whose business model relies on such data exploitation," he added.

Facebook did not immediately respond to The Hill's request for comment. 

Hawley also sent the letter to WhatsApp cofounders Brian Actin and Jan Koum, both of whom left Facebook after clashing with the company over data privacy.

The Missouri Republican also posed questions over how Facebook plans to aid news publishers once it shifts away from a focus on the public News Feed.

"As a major online content platform, Facebook holds the fate of America’s news publishers in its hand. It has not proven itself a worthy custodian," Hawley wrote.  

Hawley last week also co-authored a letter with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) calling for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to wrap up its long-running investigation into Facebook by by holding the company’s leaders accountable for its privacy scandals.