Law in the Internet Society

Facebook Applications and Minor Users: The New Danger of Facebook?

-- By HeatherStevenson - 11 Nov 2009

Revised Version

The Perceived Problem

According to Facebook's own statistics, the social network has over 300 Million "active users." Users upload over 2 billion photos and 14 million videos each month. Given the enormous amounts of data published on Facebook, the stories of public humiliation that has occurred when information was intentionally shared but inadvertently made accessible to the wrong person, are hardly surprising. Running a Google search for the term "Facebook privacy" links to articles such as "10 Solid Tips to Safeguard Your Facebook Privacy,"which provides suggestions on topics like how to prevent your pictures from appearing in advertisements. In addition, Facebook has the capability to share personal information with third parties. These problems are magnified by the fact that children may join Facebook, potentially creating records of their behavior and preferences over many years before they are adequately equipped to make the decision to share such information. Because users voluntarily share so much information with Facebook, and because there are some apparently convenient reasons for allowing other sites to link to Facebook, Facebook has great potential to destroy what’s left of our private lives. The most dangerous aspect of Facebook as it relates to privacy may not be Facebook per se, but the multiple information gathering applications that run on Facebook. Facebook could know where and when a user goes out for a run, which high school seniors schools in the NCAA are recruiting, every action that a user makes while on Amazon and where users plan to travel on spring break. As the data analysis technology behind each of the companies that links to Facebook becomes more sophisticated, the information that the companies' applications share will reveal increasingly personal information.

Though the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act protects children under 13, it does not cover minors ages 13 to 17. Under COPPA, websites may not collect "personal information," including "hobbies, interests and information collected through cookies or other types of tracking mechanism" about children under 13 without parental consent. However, the five years during which a child is minor but not protected by COPPA provide ample time for him to share information over which he may later regret having lost control. Though 18 may seem like an arbitrary age, it is the age at which the U.S. as a society and political community treats people as adults in other important ways (such as allowing them to vote, treating them as adults in the criminal justice system, and requiring jury service, to name a few).

One Potential Solution

The easiest solution to these Facebook related privacy problems is simple - get off of Facebook (or at least restrict younger users). However, given that millions of users continue to voluntarily share personal information with Facebook, both directly and through third-party applications, another solution is necessary, I would propose extending COPPA to protect users up to 18 years old. If we believe that minors under 18 are not mature enough to make decisions such as whom to vote for, marry without parental permission or go to war, perhaps we should similarly protect their privacy. While a child under 13 might arguably be developmentally unable to make decisions about privacy, many 15 or 16 year old probably are developmentally ready. However, the years between 13 and 18 can be used to teach children about making decisions about their personal information. Those buffer years can provide time for learning with reduced risks for the future, so that by the time children become adults, they are ready to make educated decisions about what information to make public and what to keep to themselves.

I'm not going to repeat prior observations, though they are still relevant to this draft, the revisions having addressed minor but not major issues. Let's assume that your analysis is sufficient to sustain the "potential solution" you propose, and that the politics went somehow from impossible to possible. You then imagine a conversation in 40 million homes during which teenagers seek parental consent to use Facebook and are refused? Of course, your application of COPPA—which eliminates any form of commercial independence for teenagers because they must seek parental consent not only for Facebook, but also for pretty much every commercial transaction online—takes away from young people freedoms that you and I and everyone we ever knew had and used and needed in the "real" world. You haven't anywhere confronted this, or acknowledged in fact that teenagers are people whose freedom is valuable to them and to humanity. If something is wrong with Facebook, one might suppose that the solution isn't to take freedoms away from young people, but either to prohibit what's wrong (if it can or should be prohibited) or to replace Facebook with a form of social networking that doesn't spy on people. This view may be erroneous, but if it is, you should explain why, so that the reader understands. If, indeed, COPPA is just another piece of legislative pandering, "protecting the children" by cutting off a commercial market too small to buy any Senators and thus protecting the immense market in spying on everybody else which owns any number of Senators, then you've got the larger political context wrong, but that's not as crucial to revising this draft.


Webs Webs

r27 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:44:10 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM