Facebook should keep underage users off site


May 20, 2011

Consumers Union Calls on Facebook to Step Up Efforts to Keep Underage Users Off Site, Protect Teen Privacy

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, is calling on Facebook to step up efforts to keep underage users off the site and protect teen privacy.
In a letter today to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the group cited a recent Consumer Reports national survey of 2,089 U.S. online households. Projections from the survey showed that 20 million minors actively used Facebook in the past year. Of those, as many as 7.5 million were estimated to be younger than 13, and around 5 million were estimated to be 10 years old and under. Facebook’s policies are supposed to limit membership to individuals 13 and older.
In the letter to Zuckerberg, Consumers Union regulatory counsel Ioana Rusu wrote, “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. Facebook should also be more transparent about its current strategies to prevent preteens from accessing the site, as well as its efforts to seek out and terminates underage user accounts.”
For Facebook users under the age of 18, Rusu said, default privacy settings should be set at the “friends only” privacy setting for all categories of information. If teens wish to share their information more broadly, they should actively change their setting to reflect that desire. This improvement, she wrote, would encourage teens to think more critically about who they want to share information with instead of simply accepting the “recommended” changes implemented by default on the site.
Rusu said Facebook should also adopt an “eraser button” principle, allowing individuals to delete all personally identifying information posted about them on the site while they are minors. In law enforcement, juvenile records are expunged at the age of 18. Facebook should have a similar policy, Rusu wrote, allowing users to completely erase all personally identifying information posted to the site while the individual is a minor.
See below for the full letter. The letter is also available on CU’s web site HearUsNow.org.
_____________________________
May 20, 2011
Mr. Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook Corporate Office
1601 S. California Ave.
Palo Alto, CA 94304
Dear Mr. Zuckerberg:
Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports®, would like to express some concerns regarding the way children’s and teens’ personal data is handled on your site. We appreciate your efforts to address this issue so far, but believe more needs to be done to keep underage users off the site and to protect teen privacy.
In the current June issue of Consumer Reports, we published findings from our recent State of the Net survey involving 2,089 U.S. online households. Projections from our survey show that 20 million minors actively used Facebook this past year. Of those, as many as 7.5 million were estimated to be younger than 13, and around 5 million were estimated to be 10 years old and under. Facebook’s policies technically limit membership to individuals 13 and above.
Consumers Union also believes that many minors are likely sharing increasing amounts of personal information on Facebook without understanding how that information is used or who it is shared with. Teens may, for example, post photographs depicting underage drinking or illegal drug use or reveal their geolocation information by accessing Facebook through their smartphones. Such behavior does not necessarily indicate, as some have suggested, that young people do not care about privacy. It might demonstrate that minors’ expectations vis-à-vis how their data is used and shared on Facebook does not coincide with reality. For example, when teachers at a school in Old Saybrook, CT publicly displayed students’ pictures and status updates during a student assembly intended to highlight privacy concerns, many students were outraged. They believed the school had invaded their privacy by not asking for their permission to use the material, even though the information was publicly available on the site.
We are concerned that many children and teens may often not understand that the information they post is widely accessible and may pose significant risks. Some minors probably do not realize, for example, that the default privacy settings allow for extensive sharing of status messages, pictures, activities, and interests with “friends of friends” – a deceivingly private category that in reality can include tens of thousands of individuals who are complete strangers to the minor. The average Facebook user has around 130 friends, which means that the default “friends of friends” category exposes minors’ data to an average of 16,900 users! Minors may not realize that such broad default privacy settings can make their personal information available to potential employers, teachers, and law enforcement.
A May 2011 phone survey by Consumers Union shows that 73% of Americans support heightened protections for teens’ data online. We believe it is time for Facebook to address these issues in a more diligent and effective manner.
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. Facebook should also be more transparent about its current strategies to prevent preteens from accessing the site, as well as its efforts to seek out and terminates underage user accounts.
For Facebook users under the age of 18, default privacy settings should also be set at the “friends only” privacy setting for all categories of information. If teens wish to share their information more broadly, they should actively change their setting to reflect that desire. This improvement would encourage teens to think more critically about who they want to share information with instead of simply accepting the “recommended” changes implemented by default on the site. We are pleased that Facebook is already implementing this particular suggestion in the context of its “Places” application, where minors’ location is only revealed to their friends on the site by default. We are also pleased that Facebook does not reveal minors’ data to everyone on the site, even if the minor’s settings make the content public to “everyone.”
Setting more protective default privacy settings for teens could also help reduce the amount of information shared by preteens on the site. We believe it is likely that preteens who lie about their age to use Facebook will probably list themselves as teens, not adults. As a result, even if Facebook is unable to eliminate all preteens from the site, it can at least ensure that the default privacy settings on their accounts are as restrictive as possible.
Finally, Facebook should adopt an “eraser button” principle, allowing individuals to delete all personally identifying information posted about them on the site while they are minors. This would help ensure that adult Facebook users will not be perpetually haunted by pictures and posts on the site added while they were still minors. In law enforcement, juvenile records are expunged at the age of 18. Facebook should have a similar policy, allowing users to completely erase all personally identifying information posted to the site while the individual is a minor. This information must be erased both from the site and from Facebook’s servers.
Again, Consumers Union appreciates Facebook’s attempts to address this issue, including developing some heightened protections for the way children and teens’ data is handled on the site. Facebook must do all it can to diligently and effectively address these issues. We believe our suggestions constitute some additional positive steps in that direction.
We would be glad to follow up with representatives of your company to further discuss these issues so that children’s privacy can be better safeguarded.
Thank you for your consideration.
Ioana Rusu
Regulatory Counsel
Consumers Union
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