Lawmakers press Facebook about adding under-13 users

Congressmen ask about data collected, privacy controls and an 'eraser button'

Two lawmakers were quick to press Facebook about reports that the company may permit children younger than 13 to join the site.

U.S. Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), co-chairmen of the Bi-Partisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, and Texas Republican Joe Barton sent a letter on Monday to Facebook, asking its executives whether information about younger users would be collected and shared, and if advertising would target users under 13 years old.

"Permitting children under 13 to use the social networking site raises a number of important questions about how Facebook would comply with [the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act], the congressmen wrote. "While Facebook provides important communication and entertainment opportunities, we strongly believe that children and their personal information should not be viewed as a source of revenue."

The letter came the same day that the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook is developing technology that would enable kids under the age of 13 to join the site with parental supervision. The minimum age to join the site is 13, though some younger kids join the network anyway by lying about their age.

The network is reportedly testing ways to link a child's Facebook page to his or her parents' page, along with tools that would enable parents to decide who their children can "friend" and what apps they can use.

A Facebook spokesman told Computerworld on Monday that the company is investigating this complicated issue, but has not made any decisions.

"Many recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services," said the spokesman. "We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policymakers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment."

Markey and Barton said they want specifics on how Facebook would keep children, and their personal information, safe.

Among the 14 questions in their letter, the congressmen asked if Facebook executives plan on allowing children 12 and under to use the current social network or if they would create a separate network for them. They also asked if parents would have to give their consent before Facebook collects, uses or discloses children's private information and what kind of personal information would be collected.

The congressmen also asked if Facebook would provide what they called an "eraser button" that would let the kids or their parents remove information from the site that they no longer want posted. They also wanted to know whether Facebook would provide extra privacy controls for children and if those controls would be put on the highest setting by default.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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