Facebook and FTC Face-off Over Teenagers


The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has accused Facebook of misreading an important law that protects the privacy of children in the United States, with regards to a suit that Facebook is fighting in a California district court. The court settlement, felt a group of advocates (of which FTC is a part), may do less to allay fears over teen privacy online and instead cause more problems. The group’s filing before the court, seeking its dismissal of the deal, has possibly weakened Facebook’s position in its face-off with the FTC over teenagers and their online privacy.

The FTC brief, filed Thursday night, emphasizes a key aspect of the Batman v. Facebook case: Facebook was incorrect in stating that the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA) could be interpreted to prevent states from forming and enforcing their own laws on teen privacy. In June 2013, Facebook argued in a court filing that it was  clear that parental consent requirements did not apply to the activities of teenagers online, even under the control of state law. The social networking site, the FTC brief said, had wrongly assumed that COPPA only protected the online privacy of children below age 12.

However, the interpretation formed a fundamental part of Facebook’s case against those who expressed objection to a settlement over “Sponsored Stories” on the site. The sponsored stories used the “check-ins” and “likes” by Facebook users in advertisements that were displayed on the site. According to the court settlement, which cost Facebook $10 million, it is not a prerequisite for teenagers to have the explicit permission of their parents before they choose to get featured in advertisements. This makes the settlement a violation of teen privacy laws in seven states.

Facebook’s settlement has raised objections that it exaggerated the meaning of teenage online behavior

Facebook users are by default under an agreement to let the site use their “likes”, photographs and comments for the purpose of social advertising, unless they expressly opt out of it. As per the settlement, Facebook consented to set up a new model where all users between 13 and 18 years of age had to show that at least one parent had read and agreed to the terms of its social ads policy. Teenage users without a parent on Facebook, would be left out of social ads until they turned 18.

The FTC has declared in its filing that Facebook was mistaken and that the settlement should be rejected- a move that has weakened Facebook’s position in the face-off over teenagers.The language and the structure of legislative history in the United States, it said, can never be interpreted to remove the protection of teenagers’ online privacy in its entirety by state laws. The group, which includes Public Citizen, the Children’s Advocacy Institute, the Center for Digital Democracy and the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, felt that the settlement was masquerading as a protector of teenagers and their families, while in reality causing more harm than good.

The language used in the Facebook settlement has received a lot of flak from its opponents for stating that its users under 18 were implicitly representing that at least one of their parents or a legal guardian had agreed to the conditions of its social ads policy. In the group’s filing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, they argued that the settlement did not make it mandatory for Facebook to ensure that a minor indicates if his or her parents were Facebook users or not.

Boiled down, this means that Facebook can continue to show images of its minor users in its social ads based only on his or her declarations that parental consent had been received. This may not happen only when the teen has affirmatively declared that his or her parents are not on Facebook; or when after the minor and the parent(s) confirm their relationship on Facebook, the parent exercises direct control. Otherwise, Facebook does not seek the explicit consent of the parents themselves.

Jodi Seth, spokeswoman for Facebook said in defense of the settlement that it provided a considerable benefit to all Facebook users including teenagers and their families. She also said that Facebook had transcended the limits of what a company could do in order to entrust greater visibility and control into the hands of its users for their information in social advertising.

The latest face-off between the FTC and Facebook over teenage privacy online seeks greater parental control over Facebook activities. However, the brief has not delved into other concerns such as whether someone was harmed by Facebook’s social ads. The controversial “Sponsored Stories” product has been discontinued by Facebook at the moment, but the social networking site can still depict links between its users and their public “likes”, unless they change their privacy settings.

By Aruna Iyer


The Washington Post

Market Watch

Center for Digital Democracy

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