Consumers Union pushes Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to do more to keep out underage users, protect teens [Updated]
Consumers Union called on Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg to do more to keep underage users off the site after a recent survey showed that as many as 7.5 million children under the age of 13 had accounts on the social network.
The nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, which conducted the survey, also said that company needed to be "more diligent and effective" in protecting the privacy of the estimated 20 million people less than 18 years old who actively used Facebook over the past year.
"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," Ioana Rusu, the regulatory counsel for Consumers Union, wrote in a letter Friday to Zuckerberg.
"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 terminate underage user accounts," she said.
The letter follows tough questioning of a Facebook executive Thursday at a congressional hearing over the issue of underage users. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said it was "indefensible" that Facebook had only 100 employees monitoring the activities of its 600 million users.
Lawmakers and regulators are considering new online privacy regulations, particularly for children.
Facebook's policy is not to allow anyone under 13 to open an account, which allows the company to avoid federal regulations covering children online. At the hearing, Facebook Chief Technology Officer Bret Taylor said Facebook shuts down the accounts of people found to be lying about their age to avoid the company's restriction.
But Taylor admitted that Facebook depended on other users to report underage users. Facebook did not have immediate comment on the letter.
[Updated, 11:27 a.m., May 20: Facebook on Friday reiterated earlier comments that age restrictions are difficult to implement and that "there is no single solution to ensuring younger children don’t circumvent a system or lie about their age."
But Fortune magazine posted an interview with Zuckerberg on Friday in which he said that children under 13 years old should be allowed to use Facebook because of the educational opportunities the site could offer. He said he wants to change the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act to allow it.
"That will be a fight we take on at some point," Zuckerberg said. "My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age."
He said that because of federal restrictions Facebook hasn't looked at how younger children would use the site. "If they're lifted, then we'd start to learn what works. We'd take a lot of precautions to make sure that they [younger kids] are safe."]
Consumers Union said the privacy problems go beyond preteens. A phone survey it conducted in May found that 73% of respondents supported tougher protections for teens' online data.
The group said that it believes many minors don't understand the implications of all the information they are sharing on Facebook. A recent example took place in New Hampshire, where a 13-year-old middle school student was suspended for a Facebook post in which she wished Osama bin Laden had killed her math teacher.
Consumers Union said Facebook's default privacy setting for minors should be to share information with "friends only" instead of "friends of friends" -- a category that publicizes the average users information to 16,900 people.
The group also called for Facebook to create an "eraser button" that would allow users to delete all potentially embarrassing information posted about them on the site when they were 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," Rusu wrote. "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."
-- Jim Puzzanghera
Photo: Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook, at a town hall event at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto on April 20, 2011, which featured President Barack Obama.Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg