The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 17, 2013

Facebook eases teens' privacy policies

By Hayley Tsukayama
The Washington Post

— Facebook relaxed its privacy policies for teenagers on its network Wednesday, allowing underage users to share more information with the general public.

Facebook had previously prevented users between ages 13 and 17 from sharing information outside their extended network — their friends or friends of friends. That restriction is now being lifted.

Under the new policy, when teens join the site, they will automatically have stronger privacy protections, and the information they post will be visible only to their friends. But they will also have the flexibility to change those settings and share their posts with a general Internet audience.

In a blog post, Facebook said the changes will give teens more control over what information they share with the public.

But privacy groups said Facebook has failed to address complaints that it hasn't adequately protected its youngest users. Facebook is addressing what teens "choose to share consciously, not the under-the-hood forms of [data] collection that the site enables and [has] increasingly become more sophisticated," said Kathryn Montgomery, a privacy advocate and communications professor at American University.

Facebook did not disclose how many of its more than 1 billion users are teenagers and would fall under the new policy, but the Pew Internet and American Life has estimated that 94 percent of teens who use social networks have Facebook accounts. Under Facebook's policies, underage users agree that their parents have given them permission to use the site, but the site does not require certification.

Facebook said that allowing teens to share more with the general public brings the site's policies in line with competitors, including Twitter. Teens can already use other platforms to publicly weigh in on current events, the company said. But before the change, celebrity teens, for example, had to create separate fan pages to promote their movies or music to a wide audience.

"Teens are among the savviest people using social media, and whether it comes to civic engagement, activism, or their thoughts on a new movie, they want to be heard," the company said in a blog post announcing the change.

The changes started rolling out Wednesday afternoon. Teens who opt for the looser privacy standards will be asked twice whether they're sure that they want to share their information with Facebook's widest audience. The notifications will also give teens an option to change the individual post's privacy settings.

Stephen Balkam, chief executive of the Family Online Safety Institute and a member of Facebook's safety advisory board, said that the new privacy settings show that Facebook's attitude toward teen privacy has evolved.

It's "a very positive step, and something we've been deliberating on for quite some time," he said.

Still, the changes don't address questions Facebook has faced over the amount of data it collects from teens on its site. Privacy groups recently sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking the agency to evaluate Facebook's policies, and have the network create separate policies for teenagers on the issue of data collection.

"To parents and teens, Facebook is claiming they are giving them more options to protect their privacy. But in reality, they are making a teen's information more accessible, now that they have the option to post publicly," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

The company has also recently come under criticism for an advertising feature that turns a recommendation made through the social network's "like" button into an advertising endorsement on a friend's Facebook page. Facebook said the changes announced Wednesday won't affect how posts from teens can be used in advertising.