Facebook will have to work hard to earn a "like" from privacy advocates if the social network decides to open up to children under the age of 13. A group of 14 consumer, privacy and child advocacy groups had some strong recommendations Monday for how the service should be designed.
In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the groups asked for assurances from the company that any youth-focused version of Facebook will be safe, parent-supervised and controlled, contain no advertising, and won't collect children's personal information for marketing purposes.
The letter was also sent to the Federal Trade Commission (currently in the process of considering updates to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act) and key lawmakers such as Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Tex.), the co-chairs of the Congressional Internet Privacy Caucus.
"We don't want to restrict access because this is the social environment in which children are growing up, but because it is the social environment in which children are growing up, it has to be done carefully," said American University professor Kathryn Montgomery, who worked on Coppa. "We are talking about the most powerful, influential social network, and there needs to be strong safeguards."
Groups that signed the letter included the Consumers Union, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Center for Media Justice, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, ChangeLab Solutions/Public Health Law & Policy, Children Now, Consumer Action, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Privacy Times, Public Citizen, and the World Privacy Forum.
Facebook has not confirmed that a kiddie version is pending, but it makes sense to test the waters. Millions of children, more than 5.6 million according to Consumer Reports, go onto to the social network anyway, lying about their age to set up accounts. If Facebook can figure out how to satisfy regulators and privacy advocates, it could cultivate the next generation of Facebook users.
"Facebook has to boost their share price and revenue each quarter, and this is a clear move to do that," said Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "We hope Facebook will step forward and engage in serious research in how to make the network safe and work with privacy advocates to set a new standard."
In a statement, Facebook took the high road, agreeing that enforcing age restrictions on the Internet is "a difficult issue." The statement said,"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."