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Coalition to Facebook: Please don't market to our kids

June 18, 2012|By Michelle Maltais | This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
  • Though Facebook bans children under age 13, millions of them have profiles on the site by lying about their age.
Though Facebook bans children under age 13, millions of them have profiles… (Paul Sakuma / Associated…)

No ads for our tweens on Facebook. That's the gist of a letter written to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg from a coalition of consumer, privacy and child-advocacy groups.

"Facebook is a kind of privacy minefield," said Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Now that they're public, kids are the last area in the United States where there is a market potential."

As the company considers letting kids younger than 13 years old in the front door instead of their sneaking in through cracks in the system, a dialogue has begun about what is -- and is not -- appropriate for young people in the online social sphere.

"We urge Facebook to forgo collecting or using preteens’ information to show them ads, expose them to social media marketing practices, or analyze and track their activity using social analytics for commercial purposes," the letter reads. "This includes information shared on the Facebook site and throughout its platform, including its mobile service."

[Updated, 11:26 a.m. June 19: "Enforcing age restrictions on the Internet is a difficult issue, especially when many reports have shown parents want their children to access online content and services," wrote a Facebook spokesperson in an email statement. "We welcome today's recommendations by consumer, privacy, health and child groups as we continue our dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policymakers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment."]

The letter offers some specific suggestions on what kinds of safeguards to include.

Among them are preteens being required to link their accounts with those of their parents, for those adults with Facebook accounts, allowing them "granular control over every action taken by the child that results in sharing personally identifying information with Facebook or with others on the site," with veto power before an action takes effect.

Parents with no Facebook accounts should be able to review their kids' activities through email or separate login credentials to their kids' accounts, the group suggested.

In addition, the group urges that Facebook create a parental education campaign to help them understand what their kids can do on the site and what and how information is collected -- and how it is to be used.

On the security end of things, young user accounts must be as protected as possible when it comes to privacy, the group wrote. Their names, profile pictures and activities should not be available to people they aren't directly connected to, so not through search or friends of friends, the letter reads.

"OK, Facebook, you want to serve tweens," Chester said about the coalition's approach. "You can do it, but you can't really do it the way you're thinking of doing it."

While others, such as Jim Steyer of Common Sense, think kids on Facebook is a Pandora's box worth leaving closed, Chester said that, though he understands that position, it's not altogether feasible.

"While it's understandable that people would have that position, it's not a practical position," he said. "It wouldn't be an issue if kids weren't on Facebook already."

There's value in technology for our kids, according to Kathryn Montgomery, who is a privacy activist for children and a professor in the Communications Department at American University. 

"These are going to be really wonderful tools, including social networks," she said. "This is why we need some safeguards. It's just a question of where it's appropriate and when."

Both Chester and Montgomery, who are married to each other and the parents of a 19-year-old, had been instrumental in efforts to pass the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The rules are being revised by the Federal Trade Commission to remain current with changes in digital media, including the growth of social networking and mobile platforms.

Noting that Facebook hasn't had the best track record with consumers in the execution of its privacy practices, Montgomery said that the approach Facebook and other social networks aiming to include young children should be "first do no harm. And if you can't do it right, don't do it at all."

Ultimately, they hope the guidelines suggested in the letter serve to protect young people as a user base. "It's not just about protecting an individual child," Chester said. "It's about protecting their classmates, too."

The letter was signed by Consumers Union, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Center for Media Justice, Center for Science in the Public Interest, ChangeLab Solutions/Public Health Law & Policy, Children Now, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Privacy Times, Public Citizen and World Privacy Forum.

Chester said the group would be amenable to meeting with Zuckerberg or another Facebook official. There's no word yet on whether that face-to-face could happen.

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