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Facebook’s redefined control over user data steamrolls teen privacy

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It’s been almost a month since Facebook released two crucial updates to its legal documents that describe in detail how the social network uses the data you provide it oh-so-willingly, and it’s not surprising that the amount of scrutiny the company’s policies are receiving online has been on the constant rise since. In fact, a group of organizations concerned over the changes’ ramifications – specifically the part that gives Facebook the right to use any user-generated information in any manner they deem fit, including data supplied by users under the age of 18 – has gotten together and voiced out their concerns collectively, though an open letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Signed by multiple advocacy groups – namely American Academy of Pediatrics, Consumers Union, Public Citizen, Consumer Watchdog, Pediatrics Now, and the National Collaboration for Youth – and published on the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) site, the letter addressed to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez is calling on the agency to do its duty by preventing unfair business practices to protect consumers and by putting Facebook’s data collection practices under the microscope. “[The FTC] should prevent Facebook from imposing unfair terms on teens and their parents that place them in a position of having to say they secured informed, affirmative consent from a parent or guardian.”

In case you haven’t read it yet, Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities states that by being a user of the site, you automatically give the company permission to use your personal information for commercial purposes. Additionally, if you are a user of the site and are below the age of 18, the fact that you have access to an account means “you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to the [new] terms on your behalf” – this includes the use of your name, profile picture, content, and other pertinent information.

Although the major re-wording of the documents were court-mandated, the new, plain, and vague language Facebook used is precisely what the open letter is so against, apart from the arguably lax phrasing used in determining automatic consent tied in with teen accounts. It basically gives the social network wider breathing space in terms of what they are legally allowed to do with the user data it hosts, and the user with a smaller claim to privacy to hold on to.

The CDD alliance of pro-teen groups is not the first effort to ever view the social network’s changes as problematic. According to a New York Times blog post, a group of privacy organizations comprised of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog, Patient Privacy Rights, U.S. PIRG, and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse also jointly wrote to the FTC, detailing how Facebook’s actions abuse teens’ rights to privacy and violate a 2011 settlement with the federal agency. “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,” the earlier letter maintained. “This is contrary to the Order and FTC’s recognition that teens are a sensitive group, owed extra privacy protections.”

As a response, Facebook has put its procedural revisions on hold until they can get their act together properly address the FTC-addressed complaint. “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,” Facebook told LA Times in an emailed statement. “We routinely discuss policy updates with the FTC and are confident that our policies are fully compliant with our agreement.” 

Obviously it’s incredibly presumptuous for Facebook to assume that all the teens that sign up for an account have the blessing of their parents or legal guardians to do so, and the social network also can’t assume that these adults would automatically be OK with their children’s pics and names appear on ads and whatnot. Not if these are the type of ads that “accidentally” show up on the site. The sooner Facebook accepts that and modifies its terms of service accordingly, the sooner we can all move on.

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Jam Kotenko
Former Digital Trends Contributor
When she's not busy watching movies and TV shows or traveling to new places, Jam is probably on Facebook. Or Twitter. Or…
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