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Facebook Founder Fighting To Banish Under-13 Online Protection Law


Okay, lets face it. America's youngest billionaire is still young... meaning he hasn't had to keep tabs on his kids sharing personal information on Facebook. While law enforcement officials continue to warn parents about the dangers of young people using online social networking, Mark Zuckerberg boldly stated he wants to "fight" the Children's Online Protection Act (COPPA) so that children of any age can use Facebook. Why? Because it's educational.

At an education summit in Burlingame, CA earlier last week, Fortune magazine reports the college dropout correctly explained that, "Education is clearly the biggest thing that will drive how the economy improves over the long term." Then he adds that future software and technology "will enable people to learn a lot from their fellow students," citing group homework activities as a way to encourage more kids to study for tests. And what better way to facilitate these happy homework parties than Facebook?

Does he ever look at the profile of an average 13-year-old on his massive site? Does he read the news? The last thing Facebook is currently doing is facilitating education. Certainly the potential for such commendable activities could be hiding in future updates, but right now there is a far greater priority facing Mr. Zuckerberg, and that is helping the current crop of 13- to 17-year-olds stay safe and demonstrating that his company is truly able and willing to comply with COPPA in keeping under 13-year-olds from faking birthdates and using the site.

Yet that's not the direction this company appears to be headed. Convoluted privacy settings change and move around like a sideshow shell game. Now you see it, now you don't, and then -- as was the case with photos and other private information on many profiles a few months back -- now everyone sees it. No, the last thing this guy is interested in is protecting privacy. Instead, the junior tycoon says the legal restrictions that don't allow his company to collect personal information from children under 13 "...will be a fight we take on at some point." Returning to his education mantra, he adds, "My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age."

A "really, really young age"? If parents are having a difficult time coping with the sensitive information being shared by a 15-year-old on Facebook, imagine dealing with a 5-year-old. And I can't even begin to imagine the marketing potential of having these details delivered to countless advertisers who would love to reach this audience that is often kept behind protective legislation. Yet in Zuckerberg's world, somehow nursery rhymes and honesty boxes will all come together as one big, happy educational experience.

Frankly, I doubt this determined CEO will change or destroy COPPA, but he has certainly revealed his response toward the recent report from Consumer Reports that reveals millions of underage users are lurking on Facebook after entering false ages in their profiles. When this news released a couple of weeks ago, I was na´ve enough to think that Facebook executives would be scrambling to get this situation under control. Instead they are hatching a protest, perhaps soon to become a true legal challenge, against a key law that is attempting to protect the most vulnerable segment of our population.

I appreciate Mr. Zuckerberg's desire to promote education, and he has shown monetary support toward schools in the past with his $100 million donation toward education in New Jersey. Yet this young man is business first, and you can bet that adding a sizeable segment of the population to his potential user base is a monetary target far greater than this donation and is too much to ignore. Sadly, if parents are expecting Facebook to step up to the plate and protect their children from online exploitation, you may be waiting a long time... at least until Mr. Zuckerberg gets a different education in the pitfalls of social networking for children.

Rod Gustafson


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews« - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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