Facebook Provides Nonresponsive Answers Regarding Patent Application that Discloses Privacy Invasive Technology

January 10, 2012. Facebook sent a letter [6 pages in PDF] dated December 21, 2011, to Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) that responds to a letter sent to it by Rep. Barton and Rep. Markey on November 10, 2011. The two publicly released the Facebook's response on January 10, 2012.

The two asked Facebook about U.S. Patent Application No. 20110231240, filed on February 8, 2011. This application claims "A method for tracking information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain" for advertising purposes.

Facebook's letter is evasive and non-responsive on the underlying issue of tracking by Facebook of users on other websites when they are not logged in to Facebook.

Facebook responded, first, by citing a report on its practices just issued by the Data Protection Commissioner of the tiny European nation of Ireland. Facebook's letter repeatedly resorts to this report as if it had a res judicata effect upon investigations and inquiries by Members of the U.S. Congress.

Facebook's letter, in contrast, makes no mention of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) November 29 administrative complaint against Facebook, or the Agreement Containing Consent Order [10 pages in PDF]. See, story titled "FTC Imposes Privacy Related Terms on Facebook" in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 2,315, November 29, 2011.

The two asked about Facebook's purpose for filing the patent application, and how it intends to use the patent.

Facebook responded that some patents are not commercialized or implemented. But, it did not address the application at issue in this exchange of correspondence.

Rep. Markey wrote in a release that "Facebook seems to be refusing to answer the question of what the purpose of this patent application is".

The two also asked whether Facebook intends to track its users on other web sites. Again, Facebook's letter is nonresponsive.

Rep. Markey wrote that "The main questions of whether Facebook has considered using third-party tracking data to build user profiles or employs user-provided data to target advertising remain unanswered from the company's response to our letter. Additionally in its response to us, Facebook states that it uses consumer-provided data for 'internal operations, including data analysis, research, development, and service improvement' yet provides no description of what these activities entail or how they affect consumer privacy."

Rep. Markey added that "Facebook needs to clarify precisely what these categories include. Recent media reports have clearly detailed the methods by which Facebook can and does track its users, despite the company’s previous public statements to the contrary."

Rep. Barton wrote in this release that Facebook "seems to be saying one thing and doing another ... In the company's response, it talks a lot about how they don't currently 'track' users online, but they just asked for a patent that would allow them to do just that. Why ask for something you don’t ever plan on using?"