There's a lot of confusion about the 3 main laws -- COPPA, CIPA, and FERPA -- that govern children's and students' online privacy. Confusion about FERPA makes schools reluctant to share information about students' progress or problems. Confusion about CIPA leads schools to utilize unnecessary Internet filters. And confusion about COPPA lets people like Mark Zuckerberg get away with making inaccurate statements about why Facebook doesn't allow those under 13 from joining the site.

At the NewSchools Venture Summit this week, Zuckerberg purportedly said that he would like to see those under 13 join Facebook. I wasn't there, so let me just quote Forbes' take on the CEO's talk:

"Zuckerberg said he wants younger kids to be allowed on social networking sites like Facebook. Currently, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) mandates that websites that collect information about users (like Facebook does) aren't allowed to sign on anyone under the age of 13. But Zuckerberg is determined to change this. "That will be a fight we take on at some point," he said. "My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age." But just how would Facebook's social features be used by younger children? "Because of the restrictions we haven't even begun this learning process," Zuckerberg said. "If they're lifted then we'd start to learn what works. We'd take a lot of precautions to make sure that they [younger kids] are safe."

Let's be clear: COPPA does not stop Facebook from allowing users under age 13 to join the site. COPPA does not stop any website from allowing users under age 13 to join. What COPPA does require is stricter privacy measures from websites aimed at those under 13 and at websites that know they are collecting personal information from those under 13.

And that is why Facebook doesn't allow those under age 13. Because Facebook collects our personal data -- when we sign up, when we complete our profiles, when we "like" things. Much of this data is default public (unless you do a good job navigating the site's privacy settings). This data is also shared with advertisers and third-party developers. COPPA does not stop users under 13 joining Facebook. Facebook has this age limit in its Terms of Service as adding these measures to become COPPA compliant would run afoul of company's business model and privacy practices.

For its part, COPPA says you can't collect children's personal information without verifiable parental consent. COPPA says you need to give parents a choice as to whether their child's personal information is disclosed to third parties. COPPA says you need to give parents access to their child's personal data and give them the opportunity to delete personal information and opt out of data collection. COPPA says you need to maintain the "confidentiality, security and integrity" of personal information collected from children. COPPA says you need to have a privacy policy posted on every page where personal information is collected.

Now, none of these rules seem to have stopped some 7.5 million children under the age of 13 from joining Facebook, according to recent statistics from Consumer Reports. And arguably, Facebook could be fined for COPPA violations now as it's certainly trafficking in this data. In all fairness to Facebook, the social networking site does say it makes a good faith effort to kick under-age users from the site. About 20,000 under-13-year-olds are expelled from the site a day, Facebook's chief privacy officer recently told the Australian parliament.

Australian legislators, much like the federal government in the U.S., have been closely scrutinizing Facebook's privacy practices, and in this country, that broader governmental inquiry into Internet privacy issues has led to several pieces of proposed legislation, including an update to COPPA, which was originally passed in 1998 -- funnily enough, the year Mark Zuckerberg turned 14.

When Zuckerberg says he's interested in seeing a revision to COPPA then, one has to ask exactly what that entails. No parental consent? No privacy statement? No opting out of data collection? Clearly what it doesn't entail is a major revision of how Facebook handles privacy -- which come on, folks, has been pretty damn shoddy.

Whatever it means, I'm completely skeptical it has anything to do with making the site better for education. Nice try though, Zuck.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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