Facebook Shouldn’t Wall Off Minors

The European Commission released a new report this week on privacy and social networks. Neelie Kroes, EC vice president for the digital agenda, expressed concern that most social networking sites don’t make younger users’ profiles private by default.

“I am disappointed that most social networking sites are failing to ensure that minors’ profiles are accessible only to their approved contacts by default. I will be urging them to make a clear commitment to remedy this in a revised version of the self-regulatory framework we are currently discussing. This is not only to protect minors from unwanted contacts but also to protect their online reputation.” she said.

Safety Must Be Taught

Child safety is an important issue, and Kroes may be right that many kids “do not fully understand the consequences of disclosing too much of their personal lives online.” Yet social networking sites like Facebook are specifically built to facilitate connections.

The attempt to build walls between people, in a space purposely created to knock them down, seems rather odd. It’s also questionable just how much kids should be sheltered from the reality of the state of information sharing on the Internet when they need to learn how to navigate in an always-on world.

If it’s a kid-friendly social network that officials like Kroes are seeking, those already exist, such as Disney’s Club Penguin. But if kids are going to join services like Facebook, they need to be clear that logging on is like walking into a public place — you can find people you know, you can see others you don’t know, and there are many whom you do not want to know.

This is a basic and important lesson to learn. Regulators should focus their energy on how to make sure that kids whose parents aren’t doing their jobs can still get educated about online safety.

Interestingly, the EC report noted that of the 14 services the agency analyzed, 13 of them had user-friendly privacy settings and 12 of them had those settings accessible at all times. Bebo, Facebook and Myspace were singled out as top performers in this area. Despite Kroes’ statement of disappointment, that sounds like good news.

Choice, Not Regulation

Even if kids could only connect with other kids on social networks, many have pointed out that it’s difficult to stop real predators from posing as youngsters. “One solution might be to use technology that analyzes user habits to confirm age. For example, somebody who shops for cars and cigars online is clearly not a 12-year-old,” Kimon Zorbas, director of the Brussels-based Interactive Advertising Bureau, told The Wall Street Journal.

That might sound like a decent idea, but Zorbas pointed out that such techniques “tend to freak out regulators.”

Privacy and security are constant issues in our highly networked world, but it would be tough to be networked if regulators succeeded in goading social networks into putting up walls by default. All of the top social networks have privacy options, thereby providing choice. That choice is important, because everyone has different privacy preferences.

“Choice should lie with the consumer and not be set from above,” said Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “Companies should empower the consumer — including kids — with more and better tools and then let them decide what their privacy settings should be.”

Kroes and her colleagues are issuing their report as part of a self-regulatory initiative, so no enforceable government regulations appear to be on the horizon. Even so, one can sense that regulators are itching to impose top-down rules. Such mandates would be a mistake, since they fly in the face of the freedom and openness that have made the Web and social networking sites so popular.

Sonia Arrison

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute. Follow her on Twitter@soniaarrison.

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