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There’s momentum building in Congress to establish digital privacy safeguards for children and teens as bipartisan lawmakers scrutinize what they call Facebook’s “commercial monitoring of teens.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) sent letters asking Facebook, Apple and Google whether they would support federal legislation protecting children and teens' privacy online. They are concerned about the privacy implications of Facebook's controversial Project Atlas research app, which paid users as young as 13 for sweeping access to their phones to gain insight into their habits to inform future product decisions.  

“We write concerned about reports that Facebook is collecting highly-sensitive data on teenagers, including their web browsing, phone use, communications, and locations — all to profile their behavior without adequate disclosure, consent, or oversight,” the senators, who are all known for their strong privacy stances, wrote to Facebook. The trio is seeking details about how many of the market research app's users were under 18 and how Facebook used the data it collected. They also want to know whether Facebook aggressively targeted teens in their advertising and recruitment.

Past efforts to update children’s privacy laws have stalled in the Senate, but this year may be different as the Facebook incident exposed how companies are taking advantage of highly personal information from children and teens who might not fully understand the ramifications of their decisions to participate in such a program. 

Federal children’s privacy law is more than 20 years old, and there are increasing calls in Congress to upgrade it with new legislation that accounts for the modern era of social networks, smartphones and the Internet of Things. Current law applies only to children under 13, and some policymakers believe the protections should also be expanded to other young teens.

"We cannot trust Big Tech to keep children's best interests in mind," Markey said on Twitter in the wake of the revelations about Project Atlas.

And Hawley, a freshman senator known for taking on Big Tech in his time as Missouri attorney general, is "disturbed by these revelations and is considering numerous legislative options to keep kids safe online,” his spokeswoman Kelli Ford told me. 

Facebook said last week that less than 5 percent of the participants in the research program were teens and they had parental permission. 

But the lawmakers don’t just have their eyes on Facebook. They asked Apple and Google — which control the world’s two largest app stores — how they were protecting young customers from “intrusive monitoring practices.”

“Platforms must be vigilant in light of threats to teen privacy posed by programs like Project Atlas,” the senators wrote in their letters to Apple and Google. “Facebook is not alone in engaging in commercial monitoring of teens.”

Although it has been difficult for Congress to pass general federal privacy legislation, children’s protections may be different and garner more bipartisan support. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which passed in 1998, was a landmark privacy law in the United States. Markey was a co-sponsor of the bill at the time.  

COPPA applied tough rules to the collection of personal information about children under the age of 13 online. Many social networks and other websites that collect personal information do not allow children under that age to use their services because it would be costly and complicated to comply with the law’s restrictions.

Markey and Blumenthal have been leading the charge to expand the law to address today’s privacy concerns. As Markey mentioned in his Tweet, they were among the co-sponsors of the Do Not Track Kids Act, which would create an “eraser button” so parents and kids can delete publicly available personal information submitted by the child. The law would also expand the protections for minors under COPPA to minors between the ages of 13 and 15.

The senators led their letters with concerns about teen privacy, but they also indicated the issues raised by the Facebook research program go beyond just minors’ rights online. They were particularly concerned that Facebook used Apple’s enterprise developer program to disseminate the app after a similar app it previously used, Onavo, was banned from the App Store. Apple said Onavo violated App Store policies by collecting data about other apps for marketing and analytics purposes.

They also pressed Google on a similar research app, Screenwise Meter. Google required the primary users of the app to be 18, but participants as young as 13 could be a "secondary panelist"  in the program if they were part of a household. 

As we covered in The Technology 202 last week, Apple also revoked a key certificate from Facebook that effectively shut down the Project Atlas research app, as well as all of Facebook’s internal apps. It also took similar action against Google

“These reports fit with long-standing concerns that Facebook has used its products to deeply intrude into personal privacy. Additionally, the scope of the research and the use of the Onavo Protect app raises questions about Facebook’s use of personal data to engage in potentially anti-competitive behavior,” the senators wrote in their letter to Facebook.


BITS: Amazon chief executive and Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos said in a post on Medium that the National Enquirer sought to extort and blackmail himThe Post’s Paul Farhi, Sarah Ellison and Devlin Barrett reported. Bezos said the Enquirer and American Media Inc. threatened to release intimate photos of him if he didn’t stop an investigation that he launched after the tabloid obtained text messages showing he had a relationship with Lauren Sanchez, a former TV anchor.

Bezos “wrote that the Enquirer wanted him to make a false public statement that he and his security consultant, Gavin de Becker, ‘have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces,’” my colleagues reported. Bezos declined to make such a statement and instead published what he says are emails from top Enquirer executives to de Becker's lawyer. In one, top Enquirer editor Dylan Howard said he had a "below the belt selfie" of Bezos, among other photos. 

NIBBLES: Instagram said it will ban graphic self-harm imagery from the platform following the death of a British teenager whose father said Instagram “helped kill my daughter,” the Guardian's Sarah Marsh and Jim Waterson reported. For example, images of cutting will be banned under the updated policy, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, said in a blog post. Additionally, the company will not recommend or show non-graphic content about self-harm in searches, hashtags or in the Explore tab. However, Instagram will not remove such non-graphic content from the platform in order not to “stigmatize or isolate people who may be in distress and posting self-harm related content as a cry for help,” Mosseri said.

The family of British teenager Molly Russell found content about depression and suicide on her Instagram account following her death, according to the Guardian. In the blog post, Mosseri said the changes will take some time to be effective. “We will not be able to remove these images immediately and we must make sure that people posting self-harm related content do not lose their ability to express themselves and connect with help in their time of need,” he said.

BYTES: Amazon said it supports enacting “appropriate” legislation to ensure that public authorities use facial recognition technology in a transparent way, the company announced in a blog post. Such legislation should also ensure that the use of the technology does not infringe on people's civil rights, Michael Punke, vice president of global public policy at Amazon Web Services, wrote in a blog post. “New technology should not be banned or condemned because of its potential misuse,” Punke said. “Instead, there should be open, honest, and earnest dialogue among all parties involved to ensure that the technology is applied appropriately and is continuously enhanced.” 

The company listed other principles that it urged lawmakers to consider for drafting facial recognition rules, including using a 99 percent confidence threshold when law enforcement uses the technology to identify people in an investigation. Amazon also said that “written, visible notices” should inform people when facial recognition is used with video surveillance in public places or commercial areas such as shopping malls. Punke also said that Amazon supports “deeper public discussion and debate about whether the existing video surveillance laws should be reviewed and updated.”


— Twitter disclosed it has 126 million daily active users, the first time the company reported this key metric for measuring engagement on the social network. The Washington Post's Hamza Shaban reported. By comparison, Twitter has 60 million fewer daily users than Snapchat, while Facebook has 1.2 billion daily users. “The company also posted another profitable quarter, its fifth consecutive period of profitability,” my colleague reported. “Twitter brought in $909 million in revenue for the fourth quarter, up 24 percent from a year earlier, with a profit of $255 million, well more than double what it made during the same period in 2017.”

— Apple fixed a security flaw in FaceTime that was reported by a teenager and said it also found and patched another bug affecting FaceTime's Live Photos feature, the Wall Street Journal's Robert McMillan reported. The company said that it will pay 14-year-old Grant Thompson of Arizona for reporting the vulnerability, which allowed a user to listen in on another user before the recipient had picked up by calling them in a group conversation. “We again apologize to our customers and we thank them for their patience,” Apple said, according to CNBC's Todd Haselton. “In addition to addressing the bug that was reported, our team conducted a thorough security audit of the FaceTime service and made additional updates to both the FaceTime app and server to improve security.”

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— Britain's top doctors' recommendations for children's screen and social media use include leaving phones outside the bedroom at bedtime, putting devices aside during meals and exercising caution about sharing content online, the New York Times's Palko Karasz reported. “Technology can be a wonderful thing but too much time sitting down or using mobile devices can get in the way of important, healthy activities,” the doctors said in a document listing their recommendations. The doctors also advised parents to ask themselves whether they are keeping their family's screen time under control or if it interferes with their family's activities. 

— Lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection and commerce are planning to hold a hearing to scrutinize the lack of diversity in the tech industry. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the committee's chairman, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the chairwoman of the subcommittee, said in a joint statement that tools designed by tech companies often produce biased results that can result in discrimination because their creators “often don’t take into consideration the full diversity of America.” The hearing, which is scheduled for Feb. 14, will aim to explore “the effects of these biases and need for inclusion in the sector’s workforce,” the lawmakers said.

— Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) want the Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether wireless carriers throttle Internet traffic without disclosing it to their customers, Bloomberg News's Olga Kharif reported. The senators asked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a letter to let them know by Feb. 27 whether the agency plans to probe the matter. “The request came after Bloomberg News reported that the largest U.S. telecom companies are slowing internet traffic to and from apps such as YouTube and Netflix, citing research from Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst,” Kharif reported.

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— Fred Reid, an airline industry veteran, is joining Airbnb as global head of transportation, Reuters's Heather Somerville reported.


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Coming soon:

  • The Brookings Institution holds a panel discussion titled “Smart cities and artificial intelligence” on Feb. 11.

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