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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.
Facebook’s latest privacy abuse underscores the urgency to pass my Do Not Track Kids Act to extend critical protections to minors. We cannot trust Big Tech to keep children’s best interests in mind.https://t.co/H1BUAoJX1V<https://t.co/H1BUAoJX1V— Ed Markey (@SenMarkey) February 2, 2019
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.
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