Privacy & Security

In U.S. House Hearing, Zuckerberg Responds to Data Collection on Minors

By Sarah Schwartz — April 11, 2018 3 min read
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After a marathon hearing in the Senate yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, fielding a second round of questions about Facebook’s user privacy and content standards in the wake of the company’s data scandal.

Representative Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, asked why the site couldn’t implement a “no data sharing policy” for children under age 18. (Facebook says that the platform is for users age 13 and up.)

Barton suggested that any information entered into the site by teenagers wouldn’t “go anywhere—nobody gets to scrape it, nobody gets to access it. It’s absolutely, totally private. For children—what’s wrong with that?”

“Congressman, we have a number of measures in place to protect minors specifically,” Zuckerberg said in response. “We make it so that adults can’t contact minors who they aren’t already friends with; we make it so that certain content that may be inappropriate for minors, we don’t show.”

Default posting settings for those under 18 are not set to “public,” though teenagers often choose to share their posts and comments publicly, Zuckerberg added.

It’s true—Facebook does take some steps to ensure that children’s information isn’t provided to other users on the platform without their knowledge or consent. In addition to the settings Zuckerberg described in the hearing, Facebook also automatically turns on its tag review tool for minors, which requires that a user give their approval before being tagged in a post or photo.

But no matter how well-hidden the profiles and posts of those under 18 are from other users, Facebook still has access to teens’ personal information.

At yesterday’s Senate hearing, Zuckerberg declined to support a “privacy bill of rights” that Democratic Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut had introduced earlier in the day. The bill would require that companies ask consumers to opt-in to, rather than opt-out of, collection and use of their personal information.

There is evidence that Facebook has conducted the “scraping” that Barton referred to, and used the data collected to target advertisements.

For example, in May of last year, a leaked document prepared for a prospective advertiser touted Facebook’s ability to identify the precise moments when teens feel “worthless,” “insecure,” “anxious,” or “defeated.” (Facebook issued a statement at the time, saying that the research didn’t follow its established process, and that the company “does not offer tools to target people based on their emotional state.”)

Facebook is also collecting information on users—which could include teenagers—who aren’t on the platform.

Rep. Ben Lujan, a Democrat from New Mexico, asked Zuckerberg about “shadow profiles,” the stores of data that the company collects on people who don’t have Facebook profiles.

As Kashmir Hill has written in Gizmodo, when a user allows Facebook access to his or her phone or email contacts, Facebook collects and stores information on the people identified therein—even if those people don’t have Facebook accounts themselves.

Lujan asked whether someone who is not a Facebook user can opt out of data collection for advertising purposes. Zuckerberg said that anyone has the ability to opt-out, “whether they use our services or not.”

“You’ve said everyone controls their data, but you’re collecting data on people that are not even Facebook users who have never signed a consent, a privacy agreement,” said Lujan.

When people visit a Facebook page designed for those who don’t have a profile and want to delete the data the company has stored on them, said Lujan, the site redirects them to a form that instructs people to download their data from their account settings. But that’s impossible, because these people don’t have accounts.

“So you’re directing people that don’t even have a Facebook page to sign up for a page to reach their data,” said Lujan. “We’ve got to fix that.”

Photo: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 11 about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election and data privacy. --Andrew Harnik/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.