Does Facebook want to open up to children below the age of 13?

In the same week in which the influential US Consumers’ Union calls on Facebook to do more to keep children under the age of 13 off their site, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s Founder and CEO, seems to be saying he thinks sub-13s should be on there anyway.

Zuckerberg believes social platforms could become useful learning tools and be of help with children’s education. Who’s to say he’s wrong? But a pound gets you a penny Facebook’s lawyers and lobbyists right now are wishing he had kept his thoughts entirely to himself.

Mr. Facebook makes clear he is on a mission to overturn the provisions of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA).  This is the statute which does not require companies to ban sub-13s from their sites. It simply says that if you knowingly accept them you must first obtain their parents’ consent.

To use Mr Zuckerberg’s words

That will be a fight we take on at some point

It’s Facebook Jim, but not as we know it

To be fair Zuckerberg implied that it might be necessary to change the environment somewhat if under 13s were properly part of Facebook. Since Facebook doesn’t officially deal with those age groups at the moment they cannot know for sure what would work best. Facebook would only find that out if younger people were members and it had the opportunity to collaborate with them. They’re in a virtual Catch-22.

Actually I can see what Zuckerberg is getting at. I agree with him about the potential of the internet to aid more social or communal and more effective ways of learning. But I very much doubt the channel for that could be integrated into anything like Facebook as it exists today.

In the real world I can think of very few places where 5 year olds, 9 year olds, 14 year olds and 17 year olds, never mind all the rest, mix and mingle in any recognisably social way. There are reasons for that, and they won’t dissolve in cyberspace.

Two PR own goals

In the meantime in the brutal, un-nuanced world commentators will doubtless wonder whether Facebook’s current manifest inability to keep substantial numbers of under 13s off their site might stem at least in part from its Founder’s now openly stated belief that he disagrees with the current US law and wants to overturn it.

If the CEO of your company appears to be saying he wants under 13s to be members of social networks, thinks it would be good for them and the country, you have to wonder how many of Facebook’s staff are likely to believe they would win prizes or promotions for finding better ways of doing the opposite.

If you really want sub-13s to come on to your site, as I have shown, all the COPPA law requires is that you get a parent to agree. This means Facebook could open up to these lower age groups now. The only thing it would have to do is devise a mechanism for obtaining the necessary parental consent. So is that Zuckerberg’s objection? If it is, why is it? It’s hard to think of a way to put that which reflects well on Facebook.

Transparency is the key

The Consumers’ Union were pretty direct in their calls

Facebook should…be more transparent about its current strategies to prevent preteens from accessing the site, as well as its efforts to seek out and terminate underage user accounts.

Can’t argue with that. Which brings me back to the UK.

Clarification from the ICO

A number of journalists read my last blog and contacted the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to seek clarification of the position under UK law in relation to collecting information from below age children who wanted to join a social networking site.

If you click back you will see I was very careful not to say anyone had unequivocally said Facebook was breaking the law but I did speculate and ask questions about some of the implications of Deputy Commissioner David Smith’s remarks at the FOSI conference.

The ICO put out a statement confirming they were not issuing warnings to anyone adding

Setting and policing age restrictions on (social network) sites is clearly a matter for the companies who run them and does not directly raise any data protection concerns.

That’s plain enough. But the second part of the ICO’s public statement was, well, see what you make of it

……social networking sites must be mindful of the fact that – unless they can be confident that their age restrictions are rigorously observed – they will in some cases be processing the personal data of children who are under the age of 13. They should therefore ensure that they process that personal data in a way that is fair to children who may be younger, in particular that marketing messages are appropriate. Privacy notices should also be easily understood.

I think the ICO has rather amplified my point.

Facebook cannot be in the least bit confident their age restrictions are being rigorously observed. We know that 34% of all children in the UK between the ages of 9 and 12 who use the internet have an account with Facebook.

What exactly, then, is the company doing to fulfil the obligations which the ICO plainly thinks it has? I have never heard of them doing anything at all in that respect. And if they are not fulfilling those obligations, what might the consequences be? Could they be zero? Seems unlikely. That would suggest the law had no meaning at all.

I am not pretending it is going to be easy to solve the conundrum of age related rules on those large parts of the internet that are free to the end user because they are paid for by advertising. Moreover I doubt the UK acting alone can resolve the situation, although I am pretty sure there are several members of the present Government who would like to give it a try.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
This entry was posted in Advertising, Age verification, Consent, Default settings, Facebook, Self-regulation. Bookmark the permalink.

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