Facebook announced yesterday that it is stepping up efforts to protect children who use their social networking site. My first thought is "it's about time." Shouldn't these measures have been part of the initial architecture? But I don't want to be negative and I have to say that this latest effort is definitely a step in the right direction.
Facebook teamed up with 5, well known and highly respected child safety advocacy groups to form an advisory board that will help them steer the future direction of Facebook so that it is safer for children. Making up the advisory board are Common Sense Media, ConnectSafely, WiredSafety, Childnet International and the Family Online Safety Institute. Along with the formation of this board, Facebook also launched some new features that increase privacy on individual pages and postings. You can read about it in an article on CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/12/07/facebook.security/index.html.
I think this is great news and I also have confidence that with organizations like WiredSafety and Common Sense Media on board, they will eventually head in a better direction and make improvements that truly protect children by giving parents some control. However these latest privacy features that Facebook launched along with the announcement of their new advisory board demonstrate that the people at Facebook don't really understand the problems associated with keeping kids safe online. Why?....because these latest features DON'T give parents control.
Among the latest safety and privacy features launched by Facebook are mechanisms that allow the Facebook user to be very selective about who sees the content they post on their site. It even goes so far as to allow certain content to be visible to a select group of "Friends" while keeping it hidden from other friends. In other words, you can set levels of trust within your friend list and then publish different content to different groups based on this trust level. Sounds pretty cool right? The problem is that it still relies completely on the judgment of the user. This isn't a tool that allows parents to make the decision about who sees what. This tool allows the user him/herself to make that decision. If that user is a child, then what have we really accomplished? The best a parent can do is say "make sure you are careful about what you let people see on your Facebook page." How is that any better than saying "make sure you don't go to any pornography websites when we aren't looking?"
For a feature to be truly protective of children, it has to put the power to control access in the hands of parents and/or teachers. What Facebook needs to create is a way for parents to set up pages for their kids, monitor those pages, filter objectionable content, and control who sees what. Only then will the site be truly safe for kids.
So while I applaud Facebook for creating the new advisory board, I am critical of their new privacy features. I hope that having these great organizations as advisers finally steers them in the right direction.