- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2017

Facebook’s new messaging app meant specifically for children ages 6 through 12 has raised privacy and security concerns among a couple Senate Democrats.

Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut wrote Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday requesting clarification concerning the social network’s newly launched “Messenger Kids” app.

“This app has the potential to provide a safe space for children entering the digital world, but it does raise a number of privacy and security concerns,” the senators wrote in a letter to Mr. Zuckerberg released by Mr. Markey’s office.

“While we appreciate Facebook taking steps to protect this vulnerable population by including parental controls, establishing an ad-free environment and restricting some data collection, we remain concerned about where sensitive information collected through this app could end up and for what purpose it could be used. Facebook needs to provide assurances that this ‘walled garden’ service they describe is fully protective of children,” they wrote.

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed receipt of the letter when reached by The Washington Times on Thursday and referred to the company’s previous comments.

Facebook proper was limited exclusively to college students with a .edu email address when in launched in 2004, and in 2006 it was broadened to individuals 13 years and up. The social network incorporated a chat feature in 2008 before ultimately releasing its hallmark Messenger app in 2011, and in April that platform boasted 1.2 billion users.

About 7.5 million children under 13 used Facebook in violation of its age requirements, according to a Consumer Reports study published in 2011.

“After talking to thousands of parents, associations like National PTA and parenting experts in the U.S., we found that there’s a need for a messaging app that lets kids connect with people they love but also has the level of control parents want,” said Loren Cheng, a product management director at Facebook.

Facebook in turn began rolling out Messenger Kids on Monday, “a standalone app that lives on kids’ tablets or smartphones but can be controlled from a parent’s Facebook account,” according to the company.

“Given the sensitive nature of children’s personal information, Messenger Kids must take responsible steps to protect their privacy and comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA),” responded Mr. Markey and Mr. Blumenthal, both members of the Senate Commerce Committee.

“Congress passed COPPA to protect children’s privacy by providing parents with tools to control the information collected online about their children ages 12 and under. Since Messenger Kids is specifically designed for kids 12 and under, Facebook must take heightened care in ensuring the company creates a safe and controlled environment for its young users, complete with parental consent,” the senators wrote.

The senators’ letter asked Facebook whether its committed to keeping Messenger Kids ad-free and what third-parties, if any, will have access to users’ information, among other questions. They’ve requested a response by or before Jan. 4, 2018.

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