Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in hot water with Congress following new revelations about his company's data-sharing practices, with some senators saying he may have misled Congress when he testified this year about protecting the privacy of users.
"Mr. Zuckerberg told us that this kind of nonsense would end and it didn’t," Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) said Wednesday. "Now the first time, you can argue it’s a mistake, but the second time, it’s a choice."
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"Squaring his comments with the facts is very hard," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
In his congressional testimony in April, Zuckerberg assured lawmakers that “we don't sell data to anyone.” But The New York Times reported Tuesday night that Facebook has long had financially beneficial agreements with companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Netflix and Spotify that allowed them to gain access to people’s timelines, friend lists, private messages and other data — at times without the users’ knowledge or expressed consent.
Lawmakers didn't say whether the CEO should face consequences. Instead, Democrats and Republicans talked up the need for privacy legislation to regulate how Facebook and other companies collect, store and share consumer data — even though the two parties have yet to coalesce around a single legislative proposal or set of principles.
Outgoing Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said the details of Facebook's data-sharing arrangements provide "even more ammunition for doing a privacy bill early next year." Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), his replacement, told POLITICO to "count on hearings."
"When companies repeatedly lie to Congress and the American people about what they do with our messages, location, likes and everything else, Congress has a duty to do something about it," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement.
Among the eye-popping details in the Times’ lengthy investigation: Facebook granted Netflix and Spotify the ability to read users' private messages, and maintained agreements to trade data with Huawei and Yandex, companies whose connections to the Chinese and Russian governments, respectively, have raised national security concerns.
The partnerships included a data-sharing deal with Apple, whose CEO Tim Cook has criticized Facebook's privacy practices, though Apple said it was not aware it had special access, according to the Times. Facebook later identified the New York Times itself as one partner, saying it allowed users to see recommendations from Facebook friends.
The new revelations were especially galling to lawmakers in light of Zuckerberg’s two days of congressional testimony this spring. He asserted that Facebook gives users control over how their data is used and whether to erase it, and pledged that the company would make privacy settings easier to understand.
"It’s beyond obvious at this point that social media platforms are simply not up to the task of voluntarily ensuring the privacy and security of their users," said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), himself a former telecom executive and investor. "Congress must step in.”
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) agreed. "It has never been more clear. We need a federal privacy law," he said. “They are never going to volunteer to do the right thing."
The Times story also puts more pressure on the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees companies’ adherence to their privacy promises and is already investigating a different Facebook data scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm linked to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The FTC has leverage through a 2011 consent decree in which Facebook promised to notify consumers and gain their consent before sharing information beyond their privacy settings. Now "the credibility of those big promises and the agency’s capacity to function effectively as a privacy authority" are at stake as Facebook's privacy woes pile up, said William Kovacic, who served as chairman of the FTC from 2008 to 2009.
Another agency veteran said the emerging details about how Facebook handles data and runs its business could also fuel antitrust concerns.
“The latest revelations make the case for a breakup of Facebook stronger," Tim Wu, a former FTC senior adviser and now a Columbia Law School professor, told POLITICO. "The case for antitrust action has often been triggered by evidence that agencies can’t control a company."
"I’m shocked that Facebook committed these violations while under FTC consent decree, without any apparent sense that they have to follow the law, even while on parole," he added.
Facebook downplayed the nature of its data-sharing partnerships, saying they allowed users to access their Facebook profiles on devices and platforms from other companies, such as Apple and Amazon, and enabled people to engage with Facebook friends on outside services, such as Spotify and Netflix.
"To be clear: none of these partnerships or features gave companies access to information without people’s permission, nor did they violate our ... settlement with the FTC," Facebook's director of developer platforms and programs, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, wrote in a blog post.
Facebook also regarded these partners as extensions of itself because they committed to abide by its privacy guidelines, according to the Times report, and therefore the company felt it did not need users' permission before sharing their data.
Still, the revelations are further inflaming Facebook's problems in Washington, which have been building for months following a series of data breaches as well as reports about how Russian operatives have used the social network to interfere in U.S. elections.
“Obviously Facebook is making this up as they’re going along," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). "They’re not giving us all the information that we had been told that we were going to receive in terms of the compromise of the privacy of Americans."
Kyle Daly, Cristiano Lima and Nancy Scola contributed to this report.