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Senator tells Mark Zuckerberg he's skeptical of Facebook's privacy push

Not everyone’s buying into Facebook’s new outlook on privacy.


Mark Zuckerberg presents Facebook's new push on privacy at the F8 conference.

James Martin/CNET

Facebook has made grand promises for privacy, but it hasn't convinced everyone.

That includes Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, who sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Monday with questions about how the social network plans to roll out its privacy-focused future.

Facebook's had a series of privacy and security issues over the last year, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal, concerns about disinformation and struggles over moderating its platform. The social network has attracted the scorn of lawmakers, and expects a fine of up to $5 billion for its privacy violations. The company is looking to shift its focus, with a privacy push that it detailed at its F8 developers conference two weeks ago.

Hawley, who also called for the Federal Trade Commission to levy larger penalties on Facebook, expressed skepticism on the company's new outlook in his letter. He also sent the letter to WhatsApp co-founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum, who left Facebook over user privacy issues.   

"To be blunt, I fear that your new platform's aim is to capture and subvert the privacy revolution that threatens your business model and claim an empty public relations victory," Hawley writes in the letter. "You claim your goal is to limit Facebook's window into users' lives, but your future profits demand that you expand that window."

Facebook didn't respond to a request for comment.

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In the letter, Hawley questioned Zuckerberg on messaging privacy, demanding answers on how long Facebook retains metadata on people's messages, and how this data could be used.

While the message content is encrypted, there are other data points that are still present, like contacts and links clicked. Hawley raised concerns that Facebook could collect that data for advertising.

At Facebook's F8 conference, Zuckerberg also talked up a growing focus on Groups, which Hawley also questioned. He raised concerns with privacy lapses from Facebook on Groups in the past, including a complaint to the FTC alleging that the social network misled users about how private the data they shared with closed groups was.

Hawley also asked about issues surrounding Facebook's effect on publishers and how it'd collect data on payments made through the social network.

The senator said he expects answers from Facebook by May 27.

"Your platform has earned immense power," Hawley said. "It is unclear that you or your management team deserve the weighty responsibility that comes with it."