Senate Hearing on Mobile Privacy Part 2 – Facebook & Kids

Last Thursday, my show was back on with a new cast member, Facebook. Facebook joined Google, Apple, a mobile app. representative, Commonsense Media and the Federal Trade Commission at the senate subcommittee hearing on Consumer Privacy and Protection in the Mobile Marketplace.  The sequel covered many of the same geolocation issues as the original hearing.  Part 2 picked up when Senator Rockefeller questioned Facebook about kids under 13 having Facebook accounts.

Recently, a Consumer Reports survey found about 7.5 million active Facebook users are younger than 13. Among those preteens, more than 5 million were under 10. Sen. Rockefeller questioned why Facebook allowed these under age accounts when Facebook’s policy prohibits users under 13 to open accounts. If Facebook allowed children under 13 it would have to comply with COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Under COPPA, Facebook would need parental consent before collecting a child’s data.

Sen. Rockefeller also pointed out Facebook’s mobile app rating of age 4+ does not match its policy. Mr. Taylor’s responded, “(the) iPhone app has the same rules and conditions governing it as our website, which means that no one under the age of 13 can create an account.” Later, Sen. Rockefeller fired back, “you can’t just dismiss that seven-and-a-half million users are younger than 13 and say you have a policy that doesn’t allow that to happen.”

Sen. Rockefeller questioned how with only 100 employees dedicated to monitoring posts, does Facebook ensure children under 13 are not using the site. Mr. Taylor answered that Facebook also allows users to report underage profiles or inappropriate content. He focused on Facebook’s new social reporting tool. Using this tool, a kid could report offensive content or bullying to parents and teachers through Facebook.

The next day at the NewSchools Summit in California, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg addressed underage users.  He would like to amend the social network site’s regulations and allow children under 13 to join. Mr. Zuckerberg said he wants younger kids to be allowed on social networking sites like Facebook. “Because of the restrictions we haven’t even begun this learning process,” he stated. “If they’re lifted then we’d start to learn what works. We’d take a lot of precautions to make sure that they are safe.”

Facebook faces a challenge in aligning their policy of encouraging public sharing with protecting kids privacy.  One of the aspects of social networking kids and adults struggle with is how to control information.  Recently, researchers at Columbia University  examined the Facebook privacy settings for 65 college students.  Every one of the students had at least one sharing violation.  In other words, every participant was sharing something they wished to hide, or was hiding something they wished to share.

Social networking is not going away.   Kids under 13 want to be on Facebook and parents are allowing them to join.  But disregarding COPPA and simply allowing underage kids to use the current settings in Facebook is not a great solution.  To address both the desire for kids to be on Facebook and the need for education, Facebook should begin exploring a Kid’s Facebook. Other websites such as Second Life have spun off versions with the same design but increased controls for younger users. This could be Facebook with training wheels. Facebook could have–

  • Both parent and child as the account holder so both can monitor and remove inappropriate content
  • Everything limited to just “friends”.  Facebook limits the “everyone” setting to “friends of friends” if under 18.  This can still be a lot of friends
  • Content unsearchable on all search engines
  •  “Like” buttons  that do not show photos or names in advertisements
  • No Facebook Places so no displaying current location by “checking in” from a smartphone.
  • No sharing of information with third-party applications

A Kid’s Facebook site, that provides additional controls and encourages collaboration with parents, could be a great teaching tool.  Privacy settings alone do not protect kids or their information.  Allowing parents and children to collaborate provides an opportunity for teaching about sharing information and creating digital profiles.  A Kid’s Facebook would also allow kids to honestly enter an age and move the 7.5 million kids already on Facebook to a site with greater privacy protection.