Dems Probe Facebook on Messenger Kids 'Design Flaw'

A pair of Democratic senators are unhappy that Facebook has apparently failed to child-proof its Messenger Kids app.

The legislators said that Facebook had acknowledged that there was a design flaw that allowed children to circumvent protections against unapproved contacts and chat with stranger.

A Facebook source speaking on background said it was a technical error affecting group chats, rather than a design flaw in the app itself, and that it has been detected and resolved, including disabling the affected groups and notifying parents.

In a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), both members of the Senate Commerce Committee, said: “Your company has a responsibility to meet its promise to parents that children are not exposed to unapproved contacts, a promise that it appears that Facebook has not fulfilled.”

Related: Sens. Markey, Blumenthal, Hammer Facebook

Facebook was recently hit with a $5 billion fine by the Federal Trade Commission to settle its Cambridge Analytica info sharing debacle, and remains under a 2012 consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission over its handling of data and privacy.

Related: Facebook Faces More Blowback on Kids In-App Purchases

The senators want answers to the following by Aug. 27:

"When did Facebook first become aware of the Messenger Kids design flaw that allowed children to engage in chats with unapproved users?

"How long has this design flaw existed within the Messenger Kids app?

"Are parents able to review the unapproved group chats their children were a part of or otherwise learn what information was shared in these interactions? If not, why not?

"Has Facebook initiated a review of the Messenger Kids app to identify other flaws that present similar children’s privacy concerns? If not, will Facebook commit to doing so?

"Does Facebook consider itself released from liability from any COPPA violations related to this design flaw because of its July 24, 2019 settlement with the FTC?"

That recent settlement was pronounced insufficient by many Democrats, including Markey. "The only market-wide message the [FTC] is sending [with the settlement] is that it is acceptable for online giants to beg for forgiveness afterward rather than get permission first," Markey said of the FTC action. "Those who argue that this penalty will impact Facebook’s bottom line have already been proven wrong. Facebook’s stock went up after it was reported earlier this year that it would be fined $5 billion by the FTC, making Mark Zuckerberg $1 billion richer. A $5 billion fine may appear large, but it amounts to a slap on the wrist in comparison to the revenue that Facebook rakes in, all the while its users continue to learn in the headlines about new ways their sensitive information has been used and shared without their permission and subsequently compromised."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.