Teen privacy "eviscerated" by planned Facebook changes

Filed Under: Facebook, Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Girl on phone. Image courtesy of ShutterstockA coalition of US groups that advocate for teenagers is crying foul over proposed changes to Facebook policy that would rubber-stamp the use of teenagers' names, images and personal information to endorse products in advertisements.

The coalition, which includes over 20 public health, media, youth, and consumer advocacy groups, sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on 17 September asking that the government take a closer look at how the proposed changes will expose teenagers to the same "problematic data collection and sophisticated ad-targeted practices that adults currently face."

The changes to Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities will give the site permission to use, for commercial purposes, the name, profile picture, actions, and other information of all of its nearly 1.2 billion user base, including teens.

The group also objects to new language, directed at 13-17 year-old users, that says that if you're a teenager, and you're on the site, Facebook assumes it has consent from your parent or legal guardians to use your information.

The proposed language:

If you are under the age of eighteen (18), or under any other applicable age of majority, you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to the terms of this section (and the use of your name, profile picture, content, and information) on your behalf.

Joy Spencer, who runs the Center for Digital Democracy’s digital marketing and youth project, said parents, for one, should be worried about the proposed privacy policy changes:

These new changes should raise alarms among parents and any groups concerned about the welfare of teens using Facebook. By giving itself permission to use the name, profile picture and other content of teens as it sees fit for commercial purposes, Facebook will bring to bear the full weight of a very powerful marketing apparatus to teen social networks.

The coalition for teens is just the latest to join in the hue and cry over the proposed privacy policy changes.

On 4 September, the top six privacy organisations in the US - the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog, Patient Privacy Rights, U.S. PIRG, and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse - sent a joint letter to politicians and regulators asking that some of Facebook's proposed changes be blocked.

Facebook had issued the proposed changes as part of an agreement that was made in settlement of a class-action lawsuit.

However, the changes would actually weaken the privacy policy's wording, this earlier letter claims, and would violate a 2011 privacy settlement with the FTC.

Furthermore, the amended language regarding teens "eviscerates" limits on commercial exploitation of the images and names of young Facebook users, the letter states.

It reads:

The amended language involving teens - far from getting affirmative express consent from a responsible adult - attempts to "deem" that teenagers "represent" that a parent, who has been given no notice, have consented to give up teens’ private information. This is contrary to the Order and FTC's recognition that teens are a sensitive group, owed extra privacy protections.

Facebook was supposed to update its policy two weeks ago but has delayed the decision following the six consumer watchdog groups' petition of the FTC to block the changes.

In an emailed statement to the LA Times, Facebook said that it put on the brakes in order to get this thing right:

We want to get this right and are taking the time to review feedback, respond to any concerns, and clarify the explanations of our practices. We routinely discuss policy updates with the FTC and are confident that our policies are fully compliant with our agreement.

In my opinion, Facebook won't get it right until it embraces the radical notion of opt-in as opposed to making users continually jump through hoops to opt out of having their personal information used in ever new ways.

As far as deemed consent goes, it's ludicrous to presume that teens on Facebook are a) there with their parents' blessing and b) that that presumed blessing somehow includes letting their child's likeness be plastered onto every money-generating shill that Facebook advertisers can cook up.

The proposed changes predate last week's truly awful incident, when a Facebook advertiser got hold of two images of a gang-rape and suicide victim and used them in dating ads.

That dating company has since gone offline, its Facebook account has been shuttered, and Facebook has apologized.

The proposed changes go beyond teens' images, of course, to encompass all their personal data, including their posted activities. Do we really think that the online history of children should be fair game for Facebook, when even adults leave often breathtakingly embarrassing, not to mention career-threatening, trails?

As far as images in particular go, perhaps the case I mention is only tangentially related to the proposed privacy policy changes. Maybe it just comes to mind because it tastelessly featured images of a teen who met a horrific fate.

Maybe it comes to mind because the images of children, to my mind, should be considered too precious to play games with, or perhaps even to generate profits from.

Image of girl on phone courtesy of Shutterstock.

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11 Responses to Teen privacy "eviscerated" by planned Facebook changes

  1. AncientBrit · 745 days ago

    IMHO there's a common thread that is visible not just in the statements and actions of senior management at Facebook, but at other companies too (such as Google, and Yahoo!).

    It's an insidious form of sociopathy - the pursuit of corporate goals regardless of the injury to others. Often those corporate goals are in fact the founders' personal goals re-invented, and driven relentlessly by equally sociopathic denizens of the marketing department.

    It's the hallmark of the creation of Facebook, and the inherent contradiction in the "Do the right thing: don't be evil" commandment trumpeted loudly by Google and broken by them more than once.

    The solution is not clear. All we - the intended victims - can do is try to control the more brazen excesses through legislation - and even that is fought tooth and nail by the perpetrators of those excesses, making the process far more difficult than it needs to be.

    In an ideal world, Facebook et al would scrap their current policies and start again, this time from a more legitimate perspective (i.e., protect children at all costs, opt-in not opt-out, preserve privacy; most people know the obvious transgressions).

    But given the kind of people that are at the helm of these giants, I don't see that happening any time soon.

  2. Jeff · 745 days ago

    I think people have this notion that the internet and all of its sites are similar to a video game system whereas its a product that needs to contort to individual users standards. Its not and it doesnt. It is not your right to use sites like Facebook and Facebook should be able to do what it wants with itself without all these ragtag groups trying to file claims against it.

    Facebook can and is allowed to remove all privacy from profiles if it wanted. If you dont like it than dont use the site. The issue here is all the people who cant go a day without social media so when changes like this occur they arent strong enough to walk away but instead find it easier to try and make the site meet their expectations. This just exacerbates the sense of entitlement people wrongfully feel these days.

    In addition, by allowing your child access to the internet you are expressly giving him/her consent. Facebook is right in assuming this as they arent a babysitter and you are solely responsible for your kids. If you let them play with fire then you cant get mad at the flame if and when they get burned.

    TL;DR I'm a tool, go ahead and downvote me I dont care.

    • Agreeable · 745 days ago

      You are 100% correct, you are a tool.

    • authentic8 · 737 days ago

      I agree to an extent but on one important matter you are wrong: Facebook cannot do just what it wants—it must comply with privacy laws which are especially strict when it comes to children.

  3. Bill · 745 days ago

    just go with Google Plus..

  4. Someone · 745 days ago

    Jeff, you are so unbelievably wrong it's ridiculous. It's not entitlement to expect privacy (and esp. parents for their kids). In fact, it's a constitutional right.

    This notion that your basic constitutional rights can constantly be violated, and that instead of giving positive consent for things about you to be shared.. it's "fine" for them to do things as long as you don't forcefully, and repeatedly say no/opt out. Psychologically, it's coming from the exact same place.

  5. Steve-o · 745 days ago

    Why not have advertisers do their ads with their own images (of their own, paid models) instead of profile photos gleaned from social media websites? It seems like a pain in the butt to make up all these rules to enable what seems like stealing to me. I don't want my face to be associated with promoting e-cigs or a dating site for free and without me knowing about it first.

    • You answered your own question. They'll rip photos from things like Facebook, because they are free. Why pay models for something when free is so much easier?

  6. fuzzy · 744 days ago

    Pix from facebook are cheaper. Simples.

    I am not on there. Nor will I ever be. Nor on any other "social networking" site - only on a couple of special interest forums where we simply don't post personal stuff. I do take the theory that of you post it will be used. I don't think that's right - I am just deeply untrusting. So far I have been proved right at every turn :)

  7. Farling · 744 days ago

    LinkedIn changed their T&Cs in mid-September which included a similar clause for everbody: to allow them to share and use any information you put into LinkedIn for any reason whatsoever.

  8. Let's just all sue Facebook, till they decide to change their policies.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.