Facebook's new messenger app for children is drawing scrutiny on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are raising questions about the service's ability to collect data from young children.
"This app has the potential to provide a safe space for children entering the digital world, but it does raise a number of privacy and security concerns," Senators Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) write Thursday in a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
The senators say they are concerned about "where sensitive information collected through this app could end up and for what purpose it could be used."
Facebook's new Messenger Kids, aimed at children 12 and younger, enables kids to interact with contacts approved by parents. The app allows for users to engage in one-on-one or group chats, and send photos, videos or text messages to contacts. Facebook isn't running ads on Messenger Kids and says that children's data won't be used for ad targeting.
Markey and Blumenthal note in their letter to Facebook that the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act requires some website operators to obtain permission from parents before collecting data from children under the age of 13.
"Since Messenger Kids is specifically designed for kids 12 and under, Facebook must take heightened care in ensuring the company creates a safe and controlled environment for its young users, complete with parental consent," the lawmakers write.
They pose numerous questions to Zuckerberg, including whether the company will commit to keeping apps and services for children ad free, and whether Facebook will use any data collected from Messenger Kids after a child is 13 and can sign up for an individual Facebook account.
Earlier this week, the watchdog organization Center for Digital Democracy, which helped to pass the Children's Privacy Protection Act, praised Facebook's launch of the new service.
"In its first formal move to enter the children’s digital marketplace, Facebook has taken a responsible approach to this sensitive age group," American University professor Kathryn Montgomery, a consultant with CDD, stated. "By designing an ad-free and safe environment for children, Facebook is playing a leadership role in developing responsible corporate practices that could be the basis for industry-wide guidelines."
But she added that services like the new messenger app need to be monitored. "It is too early to understand fully how young people’s engagement with this new generation of digital interactive platforms will impact their psychosocial development," she stated.