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The War Over Your Child’s Social Profile

There’s been a lot of talk about revamping the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, originally passed in 1998, to reflect the realities of our social media age.  

Many legislators, who voted for the law back when websites were a new thing, want to give COPPA more teeth. This includes updates to ensure social, apps, mobile and gaming platforms – and anything else developers might launch in the future – are clearly specified under its rubric. And they want to incorporate a no-tracking rule to tighten regulations around the collection of personal information from children. 

On the other side of No Man’s Land are the companies that seem to define social networking. You’ll hear their concerns couched in terms like “education,” “more targeted services,” even “First Amendment rights,” but underlying the lobbying efforts to defang COPPA is one thing. Money. 

Signing Up the iGeneration 

With 20 million tweens in the United States wielding $40 billion in spending power, plus the ability to influence the purchases of their parents, businesses – from movie studios to record labels to clothing and toy manufacturers – want to target this demographic. 

Tweens are generally pegged between 7 or 8 years old and 12 or 13. (I’m using “tweens” somewhat generally, however the social networks lobbying against COPPA have yet to define, at least publicly, an age group or limit for the under-13s they want to target.) 

The tween demographic is “hyper trend-aware,” according to Jason Dorsey, chief strategy officer for The Center for Generational Kinetics, a marketing firm. And social networks, which make their money from aggregating information in social profiles and selling it to marketers, advertisers and app developers, are hyper-aware of the profits to be made from tapping into the demographic data of the iGeneration. They’re willing to spend money to make even more down the line. 

Facebook has doubled its investment in lobbying this year ($650,000 in Q1 alone) and, in 2011, started a political action committee that donates to representatives on committees that oversee technology issues.  

Google, the search giant and developer of Facebook competitor Google+, is also active in the halls of the House and Senate, while Microsoft, founder of Bing, has been lobbying in D.C. for years. Similar efforts are under way in state legislatures. 

COPPA and the Cyberbullies 

One goal of social network lobbying is to relax requirements set out in COPPA that deal with advertising and other business practices aimed at children, including the collection of information. COPPA defines a child as “an individual under the age of 13.” 

The law places the burden on online services – whether they’re websites, social or gaming networks, or mobile platforms – to ensure certain safeguards are in place, including: 

  •  posting policies regarding the confidentiality of information collected on the site;
  •  securing parental permission before gathering data from children; 
  •  ensuring parents have reasonable access to children’s data;
  •  allowing parents to delete data; and
  •  restricting the sale of data collected from children without parental consent. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg signaled his intent to take on COPPA “at some point” in a keynote at the 2011 NewSchools Summit. 

“My philosophy is that for education, you need to start at a really, really young age,” Zuckerberg added. 

In response to these comments, technology journalist Audrey Watters, on the Edutopia website, posed several interesting questions: “Do we need better legislation about online privacy or do we need better education (or both)? After all, it’s pretty clear that children under 13 want to be – and already are – on sites like Facebook.” 

Are the Kids Alright? 

Facebook and other social networks do have established processes for removing unauthorized and underage users (some 20,000 a day, according to Facebook). They guard against and quickly delete offensive content and images. And, as PC World notes, Facebook has tighter privacy controls for its teenage members:  

“Users between the ages of 13 and 17 get what Facebook’s privacy policy calls a ‘slightly different experience.’ Minors do not have public search listings created for them when they sign up for Facebook, meaning their accounts cannot be found on general search engines outside of Facebook.” 

But, children have a way of circumventing such controls – much like kids 40 years ago snuck in to theaters to see films they were considered too young for. 

Recent research, by Consumer Reports, finds that 7.5 million children under 13 use Facebook despite being below the official age limit for creating a profile (5 million of those kids are 10 or younger). 

“Kids are already doing it” isn’t a particularly strong justification for deflating COPPA. Educating children on the use of social platforms, how to protect their privacy, safeguard themselves from online predators, and ignore the constant bombardment of advertising – certainly, it’s a module that could be added to the packed curricula at grade schools and middle schools. But, we know already that the majority of time kids spend online and on Facebook doesn’t happen during school hours nor is it supervised by parents or teachers.

Facebook especially has shown time and again that it doesn’t respect the privacy of adult users, fessing
up only when caught. For this, the social network is subject to a 20-year order by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, “agreeing to regular privacy audits to resolve complaints it misled users by making some data public by default without adequate notice,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

But Facebook isn’t alone. Literally as I was writing this, stories began circulating that Google would agree to a $22.5 million settlement with the FTC – reportedly the largest ever against a single company – in order to “put to rest charges that it violated iOS users’ privacy by intentionally bypassing the built-in privacy controls in Apple’s Safari Web browser so Google could track their browsing habits,” according to Digital Trends. 

This is one of the reasons the Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011, a proposed amendment to COPPA, attracted strong bipartisan support. 

“Facebook and Google have earned the scrutiny they’ve received,” states Marc Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in the May 2012 Wall Street Journal article, “Social Network Pumps Up Lobbying.” “I see privacy as an ongoing question for Facebook that is not going to be solved by lobbyists and PR experts.”

What Are We Fighting For? 

Finally, the most cogent argument against efforts to weaken COPPA is that the law doesn’t ban social networks, like Facebook, from having under-13s as members. 

So, what’s the deal? 

It is, in fact, Facebook’s choice to impose an age limit because more controls equal less data, and the company wants to be free to collect and sell as much data as possible from its approximately 900 million users. This is Facebook’s prerogative; and Facebook members agree to this transaction with their personal data when they sign up for accounts and every time they provide status updates or click “Like.” 

Parents, however, may prefer to keep safeguards in place when their children’s personal data is at stake and for sale.

What do you think about the debate over COPPA? Is it a matter of educating children about privacy and the commercial aspects of social networks? Do laws need to change as new media evolves?

Note: Specifics of COPPA in this post are drawn from Robert McHale’s excellent new book, Navigating Social Media Legal Risks: Safeguarding Your Business. McHale offers a more nuanced and detailed discussion of the original law and the 2000 Children’s Online Privacy Rule in his chapter on social advertising.

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