Facebook removes controversial line about teens in privacy policy

The Facebook logo adorns a wall at the company's data center in Sweden.
(Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO -- After a lengthy delay and under growing pressure from regulators and lawmakers, Facebook moved forward with updates to its privacy policy on Friday but deleted a controversial sentence that claimed any teen using the service was assumed to have gotten permission from a parent or guardian for his or her name, image and information to be used in advertising on the service.

The giant social network insisted that it was not changing its policies, merely clarifying language in them, and that it already has permission from its users –- including teens –- to use their personal data in ads.

But the decision to remove the sentence came amid scrutiny on Capitol Hill of how Internet companies track and target teens.


Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) on Friday called on Congress to protect teens’ privacy on the Web.

“The speed with which Facebook is pushing teens to share their sensitive, personal information widely and publicly online must spur Congress to act commensurately to put strong privacy protections on the books for teens and parents,” he said in a statement.

Lawmakers this week proposed bills that would restrict the tracking and targeting of children on the Internet.

The do-not-track legislation would keep technology giants such as Facebook and Twitter from collecting personal information, including location data, on children 15 and younger without the child’s permission. The bills that would extend protections for users who are 12 or younger to users ages 13 to 15 will likely face stiff opposition from technology companies, advertisers and data brokers.

Facebook first proposed the changes in August but had to put them on hold while they were reviewed by federal regulators. The Menlo Park, Calif., company also fielded questions from members of Congress.

Six consumer watchdog groups asked the Federal Trade Commission in September to block the changes that they said would make it far easier for the company to use the names, images and personal information of its nearly 1.2 billion users -- including teens -- to endorse products in ads without their consent.

The FTC said Friday it reviews any “material changes” to the privacy policy of a company that is under a privacy order.

Facebook has been under a privacy order since reaching a settlement with the FTC in 2011 after it was alleged that Facebook violated users’ privacy when it changed default settings to make more of users’ information public.

The FTC did not find that Facebook had violated the privacy order.

But discussions with regulators did lead Facebook to remove this sentence: “If you are under the age of eighteen (18), or under any other applicable age of majority, you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to the terms of this section (and the use of your name, profile picture, content, and information) on your behalf.”

Facebook said it changed the language partly in response to a class-action lawsuit that it settled in August. The lawsuit alleged that Facebook did not properly disclose to users that their “likes” and comments about brands on Facebook could show up in ads.

“This language was about getting a conversation started; we were not seeking and would not have gained any additional rights as a result of this addition. We received feedback, though, that the language was confusing and so we removed the sentence,” the company’s privacy officer Erin Egan wrote in a blog post.

Removing the sentence –- and other changes to the language in the privacy updates -- did not appease critics.

“Facebook has not shown itself to be acting responsibly toward teens,” said consumer watchdog Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Chester said the changes are part of a broad push from Facebook to collect even more data on its users, including teens.

Congress is responding to growing concern over the digital footprints that children leave all over the Internet, particularly on social media. Nine in 10 teens use social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, according to a recent poll by Common Sense Media.

The online privacy of teens has become “a hot button political issue,” Chester said.

Facebook announced last month that teens can now post status updates, videos and images that can be seen by anyone, not just their friends or people who know their friends.


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