The company has designs for a system that allows children younger than 13 to be supervised by parents, according to a new patent, to comply with the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa), which prohibits children under 13 from using online services that collect data without explicit “verifiable parental consent”.
Facebook currently bans users under 13 from joining the social network.
“Child safety advocates, policymakers and companies have discussed how best to help parents keep their kids safe online,” said a Facebook spokesperson in a statement sent to the Guardian. “Like any responsible company, we looked at ways to tackle this issue, but a patent application based on two-year-old research is not a predictor of future work in this area.”
Parental controls and authorisation
The patent application filed in November 2012 was published last week by the US Patent Office describing a system that allows parents to authorise and supervise Facebook accounts for children.
The parent would first have to verify their own identity, followed by their relationship with the child before allowing the creation of a child's account. Parents would then have parental controls tools to restrict access to certain content, friends and third-party applications such as Facebook games Farmville and Candy Crush.
Child accounts would also have strict privacy controls privacy and permissions allowing parents to approve certain actions.
A system proving the identity of a parent and their consent for children under 13 to join any service that collects data would likely have to be approved by the US Federal Trade Commission, which enforces Coppa.
Access to children’s data and their access to online services is governed under the Data Protection Act in the UK, with extra guidance from the UK data protection watchdog the Information Commissioners Office (ICO). ICO is currently promoting the education of information rights to children to help them decide what is appropriate and safe to share online.
Any new system to allow preteens to join a service like Facebook would need to meet ICO guidelines.
'Children are, in fact, now on Facebook'
While Facebook currently prohibits children under 13 from joining the service, many children already join and use Facebook as verifying a person’s age is difficult online, especially for those without official government-issued identity documents or other age-related identities.
“The truth of the matter is that children are, in fact, now on Facebook, with or without parental oversight. They won't stop getting on there, regardless of whether or not Facebook is kept from straightforwardly accepting preteen members,” explained Lisa Vaas from security company Sophos in a blog post.
Facebook actively attempts to remove underage children, with around 800,000 preteens removed from the service through a tiered screening process in 2012 alone, according to data from Consumer Reports, which also estimated that there were still 5.6 million underage accounts on Facebook, many created with the help of parents.
Facebook said it has nothing to announce regarding allowing those under the age of 13 to use the social network and that the patent was in response to research being conducted in the area but is not indicative of future work.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010