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Why Facebook's "App Developer Investigation" Needs Investigating

Common Sense filed an amicus brief in Massachusetts in November. Here's why.

For years, Common Sense has asked lawmakers and regulators to investigate how Facebook treats young people, and championed safeguards to ensure big tech players like Facebook are transparent with kids and families. From creating a system that encouraged children to unknowingly use their parents' credit cards for in-game purchases on the platform to employees' analyzing the emotions of its teen users in violation of its own policies, Facebook has engaged in various problematic practices involving kids and teens.

That's why Common Sense has written an amicus, or "friend of court," brief in support of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in a case before the Supreme Judicial Court.

Healey has sued Facebook to gain a better understanding of Facebook's App Developer Investigation, or ADI. We filed our brief because we believe that the results of the ADI program and Facebook's information sharing with third-party apps are a matter of public concern, and because Facebook's violation of users' privacy -- particularly that of young people -- warrants investigation and oversight by the Massachusetts attorney general and other regulators.

In March 2018, the Cambridge Analytica data breach exposed serious issues with Facebook's privacy practices, specifically its sharing of information with third-party apps. After the personal data of some 87 million Facebook users was leaked, the company -- which had already been the subject of an FTC investigation and settlement in 2012 -- ultimately paid a $5 billion fine to the Federal Trade Commission. Facebook also promised to do better and claimed it would investigate and audit developers who access Facebook user data. Facebook launched the ADI in 2018, claiming it would investigate and fully audit its third-party apps for how they share user data.

Facebook initially made several public announcements about its ADI program, but has been silent over the last year, leaving the public and the attorney general in the dark about Facebook's assertions that it is improving users' privacy protections. Two years later, the Massachusetts Superior Court told Facebook it must release requested information about the ADI program to the Massachusetts attorney general. However, Facebook has continued to object and is appealing the decision.

Too many times, after privacy or safety issues are publicized, Facebook promises to do better, but the company almost never follows through in a way that the public can assess. With increased transparency and understanding about how Facebook handles sensitive information, families may better be able to make informed and healthy decisions about how to use social media and protect their data online.

Madison Flowers
Madison Flowers is a 2L at Georgetown University Law Center, and was a Fall 2020 intern for Common Sense Kids Action. She graduated from Wellesley College in 2017, and then worked as a developmental psychology researcher/lab manager prior to law school.