California lawmaker wants to stop Facebook from sharing children's information without clear consent from their parents

California lawmaker wants to stop Facebook from sharing children's information without clear consent from their parents
A child looks at a laptop displaying Facebook logos. (Mahesh Kumar A / Associated Press)

A Southern California legislator wants Facebook and other social media sites to obtain clear permission from parents before allowing children and teens to use their services.

Assemblyman Ed Chau (D-Arcadia) says an increasing number of websites and apps are collecting personal information and content from young users that can be used to market brands and products. But the consent agreements that make these practices possible are often buried in general terms and conditions for use of service, and companies often allow minors to sign up with no more than a promise that they have asked their parents for permission.


A bill Chau introduced Wednesday would prohibit websites and apps from allowing California minors to agree to their terms. And if companies do seek any kind of permission from minors, they won't be able to bury the details in the fine print of general use agreements.

The legislation does not prevent companies from gathering the information, and Chau says he doesn't want to tell them how they should get consent from a child's parents. But how they've been obtaining it so far, he said, has not been transparent.

"We are saying, 'Look, this is unlawful,'" Chau said. "It is unrealistic to expect children to read these agreements and to fully comprehend the terms and conditions in them."

Supporters of the bill say social media companies have made it increasingly difficult to know what information they are gathering from consumers, while their platforms have allowed advertisers to transform the way they market brands and products to children. These days, young consumers aren't just targets, legal experts said, they can become brand or product ambassadors themselves — sometimes unknowingly — through the memes, animated gifs and other content they share online.

"It's a huge problem," said Jim Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on the impact of media and technology on young users. "Facebook, Instagram [and] a lot of the small app makers are targeting children's data. They want to sell things to kids, and they want to hook them early."

California is primed for several major battles this year over the online privacy of consumers young and old. Two pending state Senate bills would require manufacturers of internet-connected devices, such as toys, clocks and other electronics, to implement security features and notify customers of the data their products can collect.

Through a proposed November statewide ballot initiative, a group of tech advocates wants to prevent all businesses that collect data from selling or sharing that information without first obtaining their users' permission. Chau sought to do something similar through legislation last year, but his bill was shelved during the final hour of last year's legislative session following opposition from major internet service providers and tech giants including Google.

Chau says he is working on picking it back up this year. Meanwhile, he is focusing on children's online privacy.

Federal law requires companies to obtain permission from parents before collecting information from children under 13. But user agreements vary by company.

Under Chau's bill, introduced Wednesday, any violation of the provisions would result in a civil penalty of up to $7,500.

The legislation, crafted with the help of the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law, springs from a 2013 settlement agreement in a California case over Facebook's "Sponsored Stories" advertisements. The lawsuit alleged the social media giant was sharing children's names, profile pictures and "likes" of certain advertisers without providing them compensation or the chance to opt out of the ads.

Under the settlement, Facebook paid $20 million to class members in the lawsuit and updated its general use terms and conditions. It now specifies users' information can be used for advertising and presumes a child has gotten permission from parents, saying, "If you are under the age of eighteen (18), you represent that a parent or legal guardian also agrees to this section on your behalf."

A spokesman for Facebook declined comment. The Children's Advocacy Institute was among the groups opposed to the 2013 Facebook settlement. Ed Howard, its senior counsel, said the updated terms made a mockery of parental consent.

"What it's saying to these kids is we can make as much money off of your name, your face and whatever you create as we want, without limitation and without paying you for it," he said. "And they are doing this in terms and conditions that would baffle most halfway decent lawyers, let alone kids."