Facebook Hammered From Multiple Sides in D.C.

Calls to shake up or break up Facebook intensified Tuesday and reverberated in e-mailed pledges to keep the heat on Washington to respond.

"Zuckerberg created a Facebook monster" intoned Demand Progress, not looking to beat about the rhetorical bush.

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It was pointing to a patent the edge giant filed that they said would "scrub your photos, location check-in’s, and status posts to make accurate models of who you live with and what the structure of your family looks like."

"Enough is enough," said the group calling on the Federal Trade Commission to break up the company to protect the country's personal data.

Putting its muscle where its mouth is, Freedom from Facebook, said it would be filing an updated complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on news that the company was sharing data with big tech and is planning to integrate WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger. 

The group joined with Color of Change to file a complaint in November based on a breach of 50 million user accounts, but events have superseded to prompt the update.

Department of Justice chief Makan Delrahim was asked Tuesday about the antitrust implications of Facebook integrating those businesses. He said that on the face of it consolidation within a business did not raise red flags, and pointed out there could have been pro-consumer benefits to Facebook's purchase of Instagram, asking if Instagram would have become what it is without the support, financial and otherwise, of Facebook. Delrahim has said before that big is not necessarily bad. It is anticompetitive big, without a marketplace governor on pricing, that runs into trouble.

Elsewhere, Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote Facebook  "demanding" information about what they said was evidence that the company knowingly manipulated children into spending their parent's money on in-app purchases during gaming.

"Recent findings uncovered by The Center for Investigative Reporting show that Facebook personnel had direct knowledge that children were spending large sums of their parents’ money on in-app purchases without parental knowledge or permission," they said. "Specific design features and default settings fostered this practice. In addition, reports suggest that when Facebook became aware of this phenomenon and identified a solution, the company declined to implement the fix, and even designed a mechanism to automatically dispute its users’ requests for refunds."

They have a bunch of questions they want Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to answer, including when it became aware kids were "likely unknowingly" spending their parents' money in the games, whether the FTC has contacted them, and whether there are other programs that lead kids to spend their parents money without their parents' knowing about it.

They also want Facebook to commit to making all kid-directed (and youth-directed) content to be free and ad-free. 

Also citing the reports of in-app purchases ringing up on parent's bills, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood wrote to Zuckerberg renewing their call that he pull the plug on Messenger Kids, the social media platform targeted to young children."It's clear that Facebook is willing to cause actual harm to children and families in its quest for profit," they wrote. "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 confirmed that it had received the letters from the campaign and Senators.

“Messenger Kids does not have advertisements or in-app purchase options, and parents have control over their child's experience within the app," said the spokesperson. "The unsealed documents released last week from the 2012 lawsuit are completely unrelated to Messenger Kids. Messenger Kids was released in 2017 and built from the ground up with input from families as well as privacy and safety experts to protect kids' privacy and put parents in control. We have heard from child safety advocates that Messenger Kids is one of the safest apps for kids to connect with their family and friends.”

Finally, investigative group ProPublica says Facebook has blocked a tool it created to let the public see how Facebook users are targeted by advertisers, quoting Warner as saying he was also very concerned about that. 

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Warner was one of the sponsors of the Honest Ads Act, ProPublica pointed out, a bill aimed at keeping Russian election-meddlers off the political ad roles of Web sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google, and harmonize the disclosures of legitimate political ads across all platforms.

In regards to the ProPublica story, Facebook pointed to a tweet by director of product Rob Leathern:


According to Facebook, it is always adding ways to secure its site and clamp down on potential unauthorized access to people's information. That includes preventing plugins that identify content without Facebook's permission, like ad blocking and scraping ads, that could expose information to bad actors.

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.