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US senator calls out Facebook as privacy debate continues to simmer

A U.S. senator is calling out Facebook Inc. for failing to resolve several questions related to how it might use some data from its encrypted communication services, marking just the latest in a long-simmering debate among legislators about whether the company should be more closely regulated.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., on May 29 released Facebook's response to a series of questions he raised related to the company's plans to pursue more encrypted communication. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in March said the company would move more toward encrypted communications in response to users' growing concerns about privacy.

Hawley's questions included queries about what metadata the company will keep from user messaging interactions and how long the company intends to retain that information. Facebook said the company still has many "open questions" about what metadata it will retain, though it said it was moving toward collecting less personal data in its messaging services.

"My advice to consumers is simple: When Facebook tells you its messaging services are private, you can't trust them," Hawley said in a press release.

There is a growing bipartisan sentiment that Congress needs to pass comprehensive data privacy legislation in the wake of national outrage about privacy breaches. Both the House and Senate have held a number of hearings to consider a possible federal privacy framework since news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which third-party developers accessed Facebook user information improperly, broke in 2018. The case spurred numerous lawsuits and legislative inquiries around the globe.

California is set to begin implementation of a new privacy law in 2020 that would be the strictest in the nation, prompting debate in Congress about whether a single federal solution is needed. The U.S. Senate, which is spearheading a congressional effort with a bipartisan working group, is moving to develop draft legislation, but progress has been slow.

Facebook's privacy practices are facing additional scrutiny from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The company recently announced that it expects up to a $5 billion fine from the agency over an apparent violation of a previous consent agreement on the company's privacy practices.

In the courts, a federal judge in San Francisco indicated that he will not dismiss lawsuits brought by tens of millions of users against the company for allowing their private information to be used and shared in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Bloomberg News reported May 29.

In its motion to dismiss, Facebook had argued that the plaintiffs did not demonstrate the violation of any legally protected privacy interest or any serious privacy invasion, among other claims. It also noted that users had consented to share information on the platform.