When The Wall Street Journal broke the news that Facebook was developing technology to let kids under 13 use the social networking site, it was only a matter of time—one day, to be exact—before congressional privacy hawks swooped in requesting the details.
In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who co-chair the bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, raised a number of questions about how children will be protected under the new scheme, including what data would be collected, what advertising would be targeted to children and how the social networking site plans to get parental permission across multiple platforms.
Markey and Barton also questioned the social network's timing of the news, which came on the heels of a disappointing IPO and the need for the company to take advantage of an untapped market to prove its full revenue potential to investors.
"We believe strongly that children and their personal information should not be viewed as a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder," the congressional privacy duo said in a statement.
Markey and Barton asked Zuckerberg to respond by June 25. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Protecting children privacy on Facebook and other social networks has been a particularly thorny issue in Washington. Regulators are looking into updating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa), which would govern what Facebook can do with a kiddie version of its social networking site. Markey and Barton are also pushing hard for their Do Not Track Kids Act.
Even though Facebook policies don't allow children under 13 to use the site, Consumer Reports found that 7.5 million were using it anyway.
Facebook's plan calls for kids to get their parents' permission before participating, but privacy experts question if that will be enough.
"Children will still be exposed to a range of marketing and targeting practices that would need to be altered in order to make them age-appropriate," said Kathryn Montgomery, a professor with American University, whose efforts led to the adoption of Coppa in 1998. "Facebook would need to minimize data collection, perhaps not permit profiling, behavioral targeting and other practices that have become pervasive on the site."
Consumer groups also weighed in with skepticism and advice about Facebook's plans. "While we are glad that Facebook is seeking to address this problem, the company needs to ensure that it creates a safe, child-friendly space on the site, one that is fundamentally different from the space available to teens and adults," said Ioana Rusu, regulatory counsel for Consumers Union. "Facebook has to provide parents with effective tools to monitor and supervise their pre-teens' activities. Plus, it shouldn't collect information about these children for ads and marketing. If Facebook is serious about making the site a safer place for kids, it has to deliver stronger controls and education aimed at parents, and they shouldn’t target kids with ads."
In a statement, Facebook said it was in "continuous dialogue" with all stakeholders, including the regulators and policymakers. "Many recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services," the company said.