Senators press Facebook over its handling of children's privacy

Senators press Facebook over its handling of children's privacy
© Getty Images

Two Democratic senators are raising questions about Facebook’s handling of children’s privacy after a flaw in the company’s Messenger Kids app allowed users to communicate with people not approved by parents.

Sens. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyJoseph Kennedy mulling primary challenge to Markey in Massachusetts Overnight Energy: Trump sparks new fight over endangered species protections | States sue over repeal of Obama power plant rules | Interior changes rules for ethics watchdogs To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies MORE (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergFacebook users in lawsuit say company failed to warn them of known risks before 2018 breach Social media never intended to be in the news business — but just wait till AI takes over Facebook exploring deals with media outlets for news section: report MORE on Tuesday asking him to provide more information about the flaw and whether the company has discovered any other threats to children’s privacy.

“Children’s privacy and safety online should be Messenger Kids’ top priority,” their letter reads. “Your company has a responsibility to meet its promise to parents that children are not exposed to unapproved contacts, a promise that it appears that Facebook has not fulfilled.”

Facebook notified parents last month that it had discovered that child users were able to enter group chats with strangers that their parents had not approved.

A Facebook spokesperson acknowledged that the company had received the letter and pointed to a statement released last month.

"We recently notified some parents of Messenger Kids account users about a technical error that we detected affecting a small number of group chats," the spokesperson said. "We turned off the affected chats and provided parents with additional resources on Messenger Kids and online safety."

Facebook settled with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in July for $5 billion over the company’s handling of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which the agency charged had violated a previous consent agreement in 2012 over privacy violations.

Despite the record-setting fine, privacy advocates have criticized last month's settlement as weak for its lack of conditions to restrain Facebook’s data collection practices. Moreover, the settlement released Facebook from any liability for any other violations of the 2012 agreement.

Markey and Blumenthal have voiced concerns that the settlement could mean that Facebook also gets a pass for potential violations of children’s privacy that is protected under a 20-year-old law called the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

“This is particularly troubling given that the July 24, 2019, settlement between Facebook and the FTC appears to release Facebook from any liability for all known violations of the Federal Trade Commission Act Section 5 as of June 12, 2019 and all violations of the FTC’s 2012 consent decree,” they wrote in their letter.

Last year, a coalition of advocates filed a complaint with the FTC alleging that the Messenger Kids app was violating COPPA by collecting information on children without consent from their parents.

The FTC told The Hill that the order would not prevent them from pursuing children's privacy charges against Facebook.

"To the extent that any new information comes to light regarding an alleged violation of COPPA, either past, present, or future, nothing in the order with Facebook would prevent the FTC from pursuing a possible enforcement action," FTC spokeswoman Juliana Gruenwald said in an email.

Updated at 5:10 a.m.