Google faces mounting pressure from Congress over Google+ privacy flaw

Republican leaders from the Senate Commerce Committee are demanding answers from Google CEO Sundar Pichai about a recently unveiled Google+ vulnerability, requesting the company’s internal communications regarding the issue in a letter today.

This past March, Google had discovered a flaw in its Google+ API that had the potential to expose the private information of hundreds of thousands of users. In the internal memo first obtained by The Wall Street Journal, officials at Google opted not to disclose the vulnerability to its users or the public for fear of bad press and potential regulatory action. Now, lawmakers are asking to see those communications firsthand.

“As the Senate Commerce Committee works toward legislation that establishes a nationwide privacy framework to protect consumer data, improving transparency will be an essential pillar of the effort to restore Americans’ faith in the services they use,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is for this reason that the reported contents of Google’s internal memo are so troubling.”

On Wednesday, some of the senators’ Democratic counterparts on the committee reached out to the Federal Trade Commission to demand that the agency investigate the Google+ security flaw, saying in a letter that if agency officials discover “problematic conduct, we encourage you to act decisively to end this pattern of behavior through substantial financial penalties and strong legal remedies.”

The Google+ privacy flaw comes amid a heated debate over consumer data privacy kicked off by Facebook’s ongoing Cambridge Analytica scandal. Over the past few weeks, lawmakers have repeatedly heard from tech executives, policy heads, and advocates on how to craft an overarching federal privacy bill. Pichai has stayed away from those discussions, even leaving the company’s seat vacant at a recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in which executives from Facebook and Twitter faced off with lawmakers.

At the same time, some senators are expressing a new openness to anti-monopoly action against modern tech companies like Google. In an interview published today in The Atlantic, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) expressed concern that both Google and Facebook may be too large for effective competitors to emerge. “Is there ever an ability to really break up their market dominance?” Warner said. “Even if you’ve got a better app, you can never match them on data”

By sending these letters and requesting investigations, Congress is beginning to take what they’ve heard in hearings to start to take action on behalf of consumers.

“Particularly in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica controversy, consumers’ trust in the companies that operate those services to keep their private data secure has been shaken,” today’s letter reads. “At the same time that Facebook was learning the important lesson that tech firms must be forthright with the public about privacy issues, Google apparently elected to withhold information about a relevant vulnerability for fear of public scrutiny.”

Google has until October 30th to respond to the senators’ inquiries, just weeks before Pichai is scheduled to testify in front of theHouse Judiciary Committee following the November midterm elections. An exact date for that hearing has yet to be announced.

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