Groups File FTC Complaint Against Facebook Over Kids Messenger App

A coalition of groups have filed a complaint against Facebook with the FTC over what it says is the company's collection of children's personal information without obtaining the requisite parental permission.

The complaint is leveled against the Messenger Kids app, a social media platform for children as young as five.

The app does have a parental consent mechanism, but the groups say it does not meet the requirements of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) because it is not "reasonably Calculated" to make sure the permission giving permission is actually the parent.

Related: Senators Grill Facebook's Zuckerberg on New Messenger Kids App

They say they tested the app and any "fictional" parent can set up the app and immediately approve a child's account without proof of identity.

They also say the the privacy policy is "incomplete and vague."

The complaint was spearheaded by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and drawn up by the Communications & Technology Law Clinic at the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center.

CCFC earlier this year asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to pull the plug on the app.

“While evidence shows that excessive social media use negatively impacts the wellbeing of children and teens, Facebook is trying to get kids hooked at the tender age of five,” said CCFC executive director Josh Golin in a statement.

Other signatories to the complaint included the Consumer Federation of America and the Parents Television Council.

Related: Markey Pans Facebook Answers on COPPA and Kids

The complaint is just the latest volley at the social media giant, which has had a rough time in Washington over the Cambridge Analytica third-party info sharing debacle and social media's role in Russian election meddling and alleged bias against conservative speech.

Facebook's release of the app last fall drew immediate scrutiny on the Hill

Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) sent a letter to company CEO Mark Zuckerberg Dec. 7 saying they were "concerned about where sensitive information collected through this app could end up and for what purpose it could be used,” the Senators told Zuckerberg in a letter. “Facebook must take heightened care in ensuring the company creates a safe and controlled environment for its young users, complete with parental consent.”

Facebook has said it talked to parents, the PTA and parenting experts before giving kids something to make it easier to connect, but with parental control.

The tablet and smartphone app allows parents to set up one-one-one or group video chats with contacts they approve of and includes a library of" kid-appropriate and specially chosen GIFs, frames, stickers, masks and drawing tools."

But the senators, both members of the Commerce Committee, which oversees communications issues, wanted to make sure that the app complies with COPPA, which Markey helped draft.

CCFC and the others say it doesn't.

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.