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Markey, Barton Unassuaged By Facebook Answers On Tracking Patent

Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) Monday said they were not satisfied with Facebook's responses to their questions about a patent the social network is seeking on a method of tracking online users.

Markey and Baton, co-chairs of the House privacy caucus, are concerned about Facebook's ability to target advertising using that info.

They pointed out in releasing the Facebook responses that Facebook had declined their invitation to explain the policy in person at a Dec. 14 caucus briefing and that the subsequent written explanation left much to be desired.

In its letter, from chief privacy officer Eric Egan, Facebook cited a just-released report by the Irish Data Protection Commission -- Facebook's European operations are based there. It said that report provides the "most substantial and broad-based analysis of Facebook's current practices and policies," and notes that the report concludes that Facebook does not use the information transmitted from third-party web sites that incorporate Facebook functionality to build profiles of Web surfing or target advertising. The letter says that the practices and policies the commission audited are the same as those in effect in the United States.

It also said it will adopt or consider further best practices as recommended by Irish auditors, which will apply in the U.S. Egan also said those commitments are in addition to steps taken by Facebook in its November agreement with the FTC settling cahrges it had not lived up to privacy assurances it gave its users.

Despite that response, Markey said Monday that "the main questions of whether Facebook has considered using third-party tracking data to build user profiles or employs user-provided data to target advertising remain unanswered from the company's response to our letter," saying the company did not answer the question about the purpose of the patent application.

Facebook provided a general answer to the question, saying the patent was to protect intellectual property but that it might not ever commercialize the patent. "We sometimes file patent applications or take other legal steps to protect our intellectual property even if we don't intend to use our ideas in our products."

Egan said Facebook has not designed its advertising system to track third-party web side use to profile or targeted users.

The lawmakers were unpersuaded.

"I remain concerned about unanswered questions about how Facebook uses consumers' personal information," said Markey. "I am alarmed by the lack of clear answers," said Barton.