Lawmakers unsatisfied with responses of social networking site to queries about recent patent application that suggests tracking of users on other websites, using information to target advertisements
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressmen Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), co-Chairmen of the Bi-partisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, today released the responses to the questions they sent to Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg regarding a February 2011 patent the company filed describing a method “for tracking information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain.” The lawmakers queried the social networking site about concerns regarding the company’s current and future plans to gather information about its users and target advertisements based on the information Facebook collects. A recent USA Today story (“Facebook tracking is under scrutiny” 11/16/11) detailed how Facebook is creating a running log of the web pages that each of its 800 million members have visited in the previous 90 days through its cookie tracking technology, as well as which websites millions of non-members visit after they visit a Facebook web page for any reason.
Last month, Facebook declined the lawmaker’s invitation to participate in a December 14 Privacy Caucus briefing on children and teen privacy. The lawmakers invited Facebook to share details with the public and the Caucus members about the company’s recent settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as well as how the company plans to protect the online privacy of children and teens. Following Facebook’s refusal to participate, Reps. Markey and Barton held a bi-partisan forum with other Members of Congress, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, FTC Commissioner Julie Brill and privacy experts.
“Many consumers may have made New Year’s resolutions to track their exercise and diet, but they certainly didn’t agree to have their online behavior tracked as well,” said Rep. Markey. “When provided the opportunity to share its privacy practices with members of Congress at our recent Caucus forum, Facebook refused. Now, Facebook seems to be refusing to answer the question of what the purpose of this patent application is.
“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. Additionally in its response to us, Facebook states that it uses consumer-provided data for ‘internal operations, including data analysis, research, development, and service improvement’ yet provides no description of what these activities entail or how they affect consumer privacy. Facebook needs to clarify precisely what these categories include. Recent media reports have clearly detailed the methods by which Facebook can and does track its users, despite the company’s previous public statements to the contrary.
“I remain concerned about unanswered questions about how Facebook uses consumers’ personal information,” concluded Rep. Markey. “I plan to follow-up with Facebook on this matter and work with my colleagues in Congress to investigate this patent’s intent and potential use more fully.”
“Facebook’s seems to be saying one thing and doing another,” said Rep. Barton. “In the company’s response, it talks a lot about how they don’t currently ‘track’ users online, but they just asked for a patent that would allow them to do just that. Why ask for something you don’t ever plan on using?
“I don’t believe that Facebook adequately addresses that question. If they get a patent that among other things explicitly mentions tracking the information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain – how will it be used?
“I am alarmed by the lack of clear answers, and I will continue to work with Rep. Markey as we further examine this issue,” said Rep. Barton.
A copy of the Facebook response to Reps. Markey and Barton can be found below.
As part of their widespread ongoing investigations into online data privacy and security practices, Reps. Markey and Barton have been the Congressional leaders working to get answers from Facebook on a series of recent privacy and security breaches.
· December 1, 2011: Reps. Markey and Barton send an invitation to Facebook requesting attendance at a Privacy Caucus briefing on children and teen online privacy. Facebook declined the invitation and indicated their preference to hold discussions in private with individual Members and staff.
· November 10, 2011: Reps. Markey and Barton send a letter to Facebook querying the company about implications for tracking and targeted advertising as it relates to their February 2011 patent application.
· October 28, 2011: The Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus send a letter to Facebook regarding am October 24, 2011 The Wall Street Journal story about Facebook recording data of users.
· September 27, 2011: Reps. Markey and Barton send a letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz regarding tracking cookies from Facebook and similar websites, asking the Commission to commence an investigation into the practice. Recent reports found that Facebook had been gathering information about the websites its users visited even after users logged out of Facebook via the “Like” button.
· June 13, 2011: Rep. Markey joins consumer groups in calling on the FTC to investigate Facebook’s facial recognition feature after media stories reported that Facebook changed user privacy settings, without user permission, to automatically turn on the new feature that detects a user’s face in an image or photo.
· May 11, 2011: Reps. Markey and Barton send a letter to Facebook regarding a May 11, 2011 Wall Street Journal story that a security vulnerability on the site led to the exposure of millions of users’ personal information third parties. Facebook responded that it had addressed this vulnerability but also revealed that “a few” of the developers who were found to be passing Facebook user information to data brokers last year have been allowed to return to offering applications on Facebook after an audit.
· February 2, 2011: Reps. Markey and Barton send a letter to Facebook regarding its company’s proposed plan to make users’ addresses and mobile phone numbers available to third-party websites and application developers.
· October 18, 2010: Reps. Markey and Barton send a letter to Facebook about an October 18, 2010 media story about several privacy breaches of user personal information on the company’s website.
In May, Reps. Markey and Barton introduced the “Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011”, legislation that amends the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 to extend, enhance and update the provisions relating to the collection, use and disclosure of children’s personal information. The legislation also establishes new protections for the personal information of children and teens.