Facebook is under fire from lawmakers and advocacy groups over a new report accusing the company of fleecing families by tricking children into running up their parents' credit card charges while playing games like Angry Birds and Barn Buddy.
In a letter sent Tuesday to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Sens. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) call the information “alarming,” adding it “raises serious concerns about whether your company and its employees knowingly harmed families.”
The new information stems from a 2012 lawsuit by Arizona resident Glynnis Bohannon, who alleged her son ran up hundreds of dollars purchasing Facebook Credits for use in Ninja Saga. She says she initially allowed her son to charge $20 on her MasterCard for the Facebook Credits. But after that first transaction, her son made hundreds of dollars worth of additional in-game purchases, she alleged in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
Bohannon and Facebook settled that matter in 2016. Among other settlement terms, Facebook agreed to “implement a dedicated queue within Facebook to address refund requests” for in-app purchases by minors.
Late last week, a host of documents -- including internal Facebook emails and memos -- relevant to that lawsuit were made publicly available for the first time.
Those documents revealed that Facebook encouraged developers to let children make in-app purchases without their parents permission, according to The Center for Public Integrity, which convinced U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman to unseal the material.
“For years, the company ignored warnings from its own employees that it was bamboozling children,” the Center for Public Integrity writes. “A team of Facebook employees even developed a method that would have reduced the problem of children being hoodwinked into spending money, but the company did not implement it, and instead told game developers that the social media giant was focused on maximizing revenues.”
The evidence also shows that many young users didn't realize they were making actual credit card purchases, according to the report.
Markey and Blumenthal are now asking Zuckerberg a host of questions, including when he personally became aware that children “were likely unknowingly spending their parents' money while playing games.”
Other questions include what changes Facebook has made to end the practices, and whether it will commit to issuing refunds.
Some advocates for children who previously criticized Facebook's Messenger Kids -- the messaging app designed for children 12 and younger -- are reiterating calls for Facebook to end that service.
“The documents appear to demonstrate that Facebook is willing to cause actual harm to children and families in its quest for profit,” the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Public Citizen and other groups write in a letter sent to Zuckerberg Tuesday. “As such, Facebook is unfit to make any platform or product for children, especially one like Messenger Kids, which gives Facebook unfettered access to kids’ relationships, conversations, and private moments with friends and family.”
A Facebook spokesperson says Messenger Kids doesn't have ads or in-app purchase options. “The unsealed documents released last week from the 2012 lawsuit are completely unrelated to Messenger Kids,” the spokesperson stated.