Minors on Facebook: When Will the Feds Crack Down?

Strangely an old story showed up on Techmeme this morning: “CR Survey: 7.5 Million Facebook Users are Under the Age of 13, Violating the Site’s Terms.”

This was based on a survey conducted by Consumer Reports earlier this year and released in May. What it says basically, as the headline indicates, is that there are millions of minors on Facebook in the US (and it’s also true internationally). This violates the terms of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998. I’m less familiar with rules in Europe but there probably are some similar prohibitions.

There have been other similar findings about younger minors and Facebook in the past. According to CNET:

[A] 2010 study by McAfee that found 37 percent of 10 to 12 year olds are on Facebook and a study (PDF) released in April from the London School of Economics EU Kids Online project that found that 38 percent of 9- to 12-year-old European children used social-networking sites, with one in five using Facebook, “rising to over 4 in 10 in some countries.”

In many instances — and I know this from my pre-teen daughter’s peer group — the parents are indifferent or even complicit in the illicit Facebook accounts. Sooner or later, if it isn’t already being investigated, the FTC or a Congressional committee will get involved.

The issue is not that far removed from Google’s recent $500 million penalty over accepting Canadian pharmaceutical ads. The claim there is that Google could have done more to block or filter the ads but chose not to.

My prediction is that Facebook will ultimately be compelled to more closely police user accounts to prevent under-13 minors from using the site. But this is a lot more challenging than it sounds. There are practical enforcement and detection problems if people lie about their ages. The government won’t be all that sympathetic, however.

I suspect this will become a major headache for Facebook after the feds threaten action. All it will require is some grandstanding Senator or Congressperson to notice and recognize a PR opportunity. Then we’ll have hearings and a formal investigation.

In my view some of the data mining and PII stuff that is being derived from Facebook is worse and requires more immediate attention.

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