Members of Congress in the U.S. on Tuesday requested a briefing with Facebook over allegations that the social network potentially misled users who discussed their medical conditions in “closed” groups that they believed to be private and anonymous. But Facebook says users who shared information in these groups should have understood that the social network “is not an anonymous platform.”
In an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Representative Frank Pallone, Jr., chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Jr. and Representative Jan Schakowsky, chair of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, questioned the social network’s privacy practices regarding its handling of closed groups dedicated to medical issues.
The committee’s letter comes in response to a consumer complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission in December and publicly released this week that claims the personal information of Facebook users in closed groups may have been made available to companies and individuals who shouldn’t have had access to it.
The letter explains that, according to the complaint, users in these groups shared information “about substance use disorders, about the challenges of parenting transgender children, HIV status, and past history of sexual assault.”
A closed Facebook group isn’t the same as a secret Facebook group—the name of a closed group and its description can be viewed by the public, but posts are only viewable by members. The FTC complaint alleges that Facebook’s algorithm actively “nudges” users into joining closed groups, including those created for the discussion of certain medical conditions. The complaint further claims that the company misleads users into believing the information they share in these groups will remain private and anonymous. The letter from the lawmakers states that even insurance companies may have access to these groups and may have used this privately disclosed information to make insurance decisions.
In a statement to Gizmodo, Facebook effectively blamed users for assuming its service granted them anonymity, even in such sensitive groups.
“Facebook is not an anonymous platform; real-name identity is at the center of the experience and always has been,” a Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email. “It’s intentionally clear to people that when they join any group on Facebook, other members of that group can see that they are a part of that community, and can see the posts they choose to share with that community. There is value in being able to know who you’re having a conversation with in a group, and we look forward to briefing the committee on this.”
The committee wrote in its letter to Facebook that it demands the company hold a briefing by March 1 of this year.
Following its year of privacy scandals, allegations that Facebook may have exploited users looking to discuss sensitive information in what they believed were secure spaces should not come as a shock.
A report from the Verge from May of last year revealed that closed groups for addiction support were being infiltrated by rehab marketers, a practice that Facebook claimed it was aware of and didn’t seem to find deeply disturbing.
“This consumer complaint raises a number of concerns about Facebook’s privacy policies and practices,” the committee leaders wrote in the letter. “Facebook’s systems lack transparency as to how they are able to gather personal information and synthesise that information into suggestions of relevant medical condition support groups. Labelling these groups as closed or anonymous potentially misled Facebook users into joining these groups and revealing more personal information than they otherwise would have. And Facebook may have failed to properly notify group members that their personal health information may have been accessed by health insurance companies and online bullies, among others.”
What’s evident in Facebook’s statement regarding the latest scandal (at the time of writing this), is its total dismissal of the notion that it can be an incognito space. Instead, it puts the onus on its users to understand that even if a group is labelled in a way that may seem anonymous—the name has “anonymous” in it and it is characterised as “closed”—that they are the ones who’ve misstepped.