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Consumers Union urges stronger Facebook protections for children

In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the publisher of Consumer Reports asks that the company beef up its efforts to keep children under 13 off the site.

May 21, 2011|By Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times
  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Zuckerberg, shown in April, said restrictions in the federal Childrens Online Privacy Protection Act have kept Facebook from exploring how younger children might use the site.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Zuckerberg, shown in April, said restrictions… (Tony Avelar, Bloomberg )

Reporting from Washington — The publisher of Consumer Reports magazine called on Facebook Inc. to beef up efforts to keep underage users off the social networking site, but Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said he would like children to be able to use the site in the future as an educational tool.

Despite growing privacy concerns about preteens using Facebook, the company's co-founder wants changes in a federal law that places restrictions on websites that collect personal information from preteens. Those restrictions are the reason for Facebook's policy that users must be at least 13 years old.

"That will be a fight we take on at some point," Zuckerberg said at an education forum this week, according to Fortune magazine. "My philosophy is that for education, you need to start at a really, really young age."

In a survey this month, Consumer Reports magazine found that despite Facebook's policy, as many as 7.5 million children younger than 13 had active accounts.

The nonprofit Consumers Union said Friday that it was concerned that young children, and even teenagers, don't understand the implications of sharing photos and other personal information on Facebook.

Recently, for example, a 13-year-old New Hampshire middle-school student was suspended for a Facebook post in which she wished Osama bin Laden had killed her math teacher.

Consumers Union said Facebook needed to be "more diligent and effective" in protecting the privacy of the estimated 20 million people younger than 18 who actively used the site over the last year.

"We urge Facebook to strengthen its efforts to identify and terminate the accounts of users under 13 years of age, and also to implement more effective age-verification methods for users signing up for new accounts," Ioana Rusu, the regulatory counsel for Consumers Union, wrote in a letter to Zuckerberg.

The letter followed tough questioning of a Facebook executive Thursday at a congressional hearing over the issue of underage users. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said it was "indefensible" that Facebook had only 100 employees monitoring the activities of its 600 million users.

Lawmakers and regulators are considering new online privacy regulations, particularly for children.

At the hearing, Facebook Chief Technology Officer Bret Taylor said Facebook shuts down the accounts of people found to be lying about their age. But he acknowledged that Facebook depended on other users to report underage users.

On Friday, Facebook said that age restrictions are difficult to implement and that "there is no single solution to ensuring younger children don't circumvent a system or lie about their age."

At the education forum, Zuckerberg said restrictions in the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act kept Facebook from exploring how younger children might use the site.

"If they're lifted, then we'd start to learn what works," he said, according to Fortune. "We'd take a lot of precautions to make sure that they [younger children] are safe."

Consumers Union said Facebook's default privacy setting for minors should be to share information with "friends only" instead of "friends of friends" — a category that publicizes the average user's information to 16,900 people.

Consumers Union also called on Facebook to create an "eraser button" that would allow users to delete all potentially embarrassing information posted about them on the site when they were minors.

jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

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