Lawmakers Question Facebook About Messenger Kids Privacy Glitch

Lawmakers are pressing Facebook for more information about a recently uncovered Messenger Kids glitch that allowed young children to communicate with unapproved adults.

“While software bugs are a common occurrence, the need to protect children who use Messenger Kids and Facebook's promises to parents set a higher bar for privacy and online safety,” Sens. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) say in a letter sent Monday to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “Your company has a responsibility to meet its promise to parents that children are note exposed to unapproved contacts, a promise that it appears that Facebook has not fulfilled.”

The lawmakers are asking Zuckerberg to answer a host of questions, including when Facebook first learned of the bug in Messenger Kids, how long the flaw has existed, and whether affected parents have been notified.

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Facebook said last month it had notified some parents about a "technical error" that affected "a small number of group chats." The company added that it turned off affected chats and gave parents "additional resources on Messenger Kids and online safety." 

Facebook's Messenger Kids, aimed at children 12 and younger, has been controversial since it launched last year. The app allows children to interact with contacts approved by parents by engaging in one-on-one or group chats, and it also enables kids to send photos, videos and text messages.

In January of 2018, children's advocates urged Facebook to shut down the service, arguing that pre-teens and younger children weren't ready to have social media accounts.

That October, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and 16 other advocacy groups alleged in a Federal Trade Commission complaint that the app doesn't comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

That law requires companies to obtain parental consent before collecting personal information -- including names, email addresses, geolocation data and unique identifiers -- from children 12 and younger. The advocacy groups said Facebook doesn't adequately verify that the people approving children's contacts are actually the users' parents.

Markey and Blumenthal say the Messenger Kids' glitch is “particularly troubling” given that the company's proposed settlement with the FTC may release Facebook from liability for the bug.

The FTC recently proposed that Facebook pay $5 billion and accept new oversight to settle allegations that the company's privacy practices violated a 2012 consent decree. That settlement, if accepted, will also cover “known” violations of consumer-protection laws committed by Facebook prior to June 12, 2019.

The scope of that coverage -- including whether it extends to allegations that Facebook's Messenger Kids violated children's privacy laws -- isn't yet clear.

In their new letter, the lawmakers also specifically ask Zuckerberg whether Facebook had discussions with the FTC about Messenger Kids, and whether the proposed $5 billion privacy settlement covers allegations that the messaging platform violates children's privacy laws.

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