A father is suing Facebook after his 12-year-old daughter posted "sexually explicit" photos on the social network. His main argument is that Facebook does not properly enforce its own policy for requiring users of the social network to be at least 13 years old. The writ alleges that Facebook is "guilty of negligence" and creates "a risk of sexual and physical harm" to the child.
I contacted Facebook for a statement, and the answer I received back was much more detailed than usual (read it in full below). Facebook obviously does not agree that it should be held accountable. The company insists that anyone who is concerned about an underage person on Facebook should report them by using the form provided, and it will remove them.
Of course, the father in question did that, but his daughter, who reportedly has behavioral problems, simply created another account and continued uploading photos. The father is seeking an injunction not only ordering Facebook to close down his daughter's account but to stop her from opening another one. If that doesn't happen, he wants to see Facebook stop operations in Northern Ireland.
Facebook, for its part, says it uses back-end end technology to try and prevent underage users from signing up again. Palo Alto would not elaborate how this system worked. It did note, however, that recent reports show it is difficult is to implement age restrictions on the Internet and that there is no single solution to ensuring younger children don't circumvent a system or lie about their age.
Instead of implementing a strict system for age verification (the father's lawyer suggested using a passport number), Facebook says it prefers to educate its users about safety instead. Facebook would have arguably not grown very quickly if signing up for the social network was a long process.
Palo Alto cites safety experts who say communication between parents and their kids about their use of the Internet is vital. The company points to recent updates to its safety and security offerings, including the Family Safety Center and social reporting tool (Photo Gallery). The social networking giant also notes it works with charity partners such as Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) and law enforcement agencies across the world.
The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) mandates that websites that collect information about users aren't allowed to sign on anyone under the age of 13. As a result, Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities require users of the social network to be at least 13 years old (and even older, in some jurisdictions).
Millions of preteens use the service anyway: some get permission from their parents to create an account while others lie about their age to get past sign-up restrictions. Four months ago, it was estimated that 7.5 million Facebook users are below the minimum age. To make matters even more worrying, more than 5 million were 10-years-old or younger.
The full statement Facebook sent me is below:
Anyone who is concerned about an underage person on Facebook should report them to us using the form provided and we will remove them.
Facebook is currently designed for two age groups (13-17 year olds and 18 and up), and we provide extensive safety and privacy controls based on the age provided. If someone reports an underage account to use then we will remove it, and use back-end end technology to try and prevent them signing up again. However, recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to implement age restrictions on the Internet and that there is no single solution to ensuring younger children don't circumvent a system or lie about their age.
We invest heavily in educating people how to stay safe on Facebook both via our Family Safety Center and by working with charity partners such as FOSI (Family Online Safety Institute). We have good working relationships with law enforcement agencies across the world, including CEOP in the UK, and employ world class technology to help keep bad people and content off the site.
However, we agree with safety experts that communication between parents/guardians and kids about their use of the Internet is vital. We believe that services such as Facebook have a role to play in encouraging this: the recent announcements around social reporting and our safety center are testimonies to our ongoing efforts in ensuring we are giving detailed and helpful advice to help support these conversations. Just as parents are always teaching and reminding kids how to cross the road safely, talking about internet safety should be just as important a lesson to learn.