Sunday, October 23, 2011

Facebook challenged on profiling preteens

Post submitted by Molly McCurdy (edited and elaboration by BJB) -

  Facebook is a convenient way to stay in touch with friends and has become a pivotal advertising tool for companies; but what you may not know is that all of your personal information is packaged up into a profile, which is then marketed to advertisers.   When Facebook was initially created in 2004 as a social networking site for college students, the user had to have a college email address to register and open a page. In 2006, Facebook allowed anyone with an email address to register, although its terms stated that users must be 13 or older.  Now, seven years later, the website has transformed into an advertising powerhouse with users of all ages participating. But in a generation where cyber bullying and online predators are a serious problem, where is the age limit for Facebook users?
   The 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act prohibited any website from collecting personal information from a child under the age of 13 without parental consent - thus Facebook's choice of 13 as its lower age limit.  However, it's a soft limit, and can be bypassed.  Also, there is no prohibition against parents registering their kids on Facebook.  A Consumer Reports study last May estimated that more than 7.5 million U.S. Facebook users were under the age of 13; and 5 million were under 10. Moreover, their study found that most of their use was unsupervised by parents. Other studies indicate that about three-quarters of parents report occasionally monitoring their kids' social media accounts - but 80% of kids report using privacy settings to block at least some content from parents' view.. In any case, it's pretty clear that parents aren't always supervising and monitoring their kids' use of Facebook (or other social media sites).  Critics aren't only concerned with privacy and data collection - there are also charges that Facebook provides no increased security precautions for minors, and dioes not block advertising to kids..
   Within weeks of Consumer Reports releasing their article, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that they would challenge the COPPA law. A New York Times Magazine piece speculated that it is not certain why they want children’s membership so badly but brand loyalty does come into play - “The younger the child, the greater the opportunity to build brand loyalty that might transcend the next social-media trend. And crucially, signing up kids early can accustom them to “sharing” with the big audiences that are at their small fingertips.”
   Facebook provides a "free service", but like many media, operating costs are offset by advertising and marketing revenues.  When you create an account on Facebook you are providing personal information about yourself that goes into a “personal profile” if you will. You enter your; age, hometown, activities, “likes”, your friends, where you vacation etc. This enables the ads to be highly targeted, including targeting kids.  The more connected you are with the site, the more “likes” you post, the more personalized your ads will be on the side of the page. Some find the targeted marketing helpful, and appreciate the advertisements. For others, the concept of Facebook marketing you for profit is simply outrageous. But kids are considered special, and there is greater concern about the influence of advertising and marketing directed towards young people.  It doesn't help when a Facebook's sales chief notes that friend referrals are a potent form of online advertising, giving Facebook even greater incentives to track kids' online behavior.  Lisa Wirthman, in a Denver Post Op-ed, stated that “Parents need to pull back the curtain and understand that Facebook has no motivation to make its site safer for minors when restricting data collection from kids directly contradicts its business model.”
   Whether Facebook is directly violating COPPA is open to debate - Facebook correctly states that to get an account, you must either state you are 13 or older, or have a parent register you.  If you lie about either, Facebook can close the account, and they do, when they are notified of the situation.  Critics argue that this kind of reactive enforcement isn't enough, and that the law should be interpreted as requiring parental permission to be collected for each separate Facebook session.  They also suggest that Facebook should actively screen questionable accounts, or at least make privacy settings for kids default to the "no marketing of info" setting.
    Whatever interpretation wins in court, Facebook faces a PR issue with how they handle kids, and their personal information and behaviors, in the system.

Sources - That Facebook friend might be 10 years old, and other troubling newsConsumer Reports
Facebook and Your TeenagerDenver Post
Why Facebook Is After Your Kids, NY Times Magazine

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