Let's get one thing clear right at the outset: Nobody likes pedophiles. Nobody likes the idea of pedophiles using the Internet to find children to stalk or get off on or do whatever sick things it is that pedophiles do all day long. And nobody — NOBODY — wants to make it easier for them to fulfill their vile, pedophilic fantasies, even if it is a profitable pursuit. Nobody except for a few of Silicon Valley's most famous social networks.
On Friday, news emerged that Path, the mobile social network founded by early Facebook employee Dave Morin, has agreed to pay the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) $800,000 for violating the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a sometimes controversial law that's designed to keep kids safe on the Internet and prohibits children under 13 from registering for sites like Path and Facebook. Path also purged 3,000 accounts from the social network due to suspected COPPA violations, and says that it has implemented the proper steps during the registration process to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.
The FTC's discovery of thousands of underage Path users was an accident actually, a fact that should serve as a warning sign that authorities haven't quite figured out how to police these sorts of things yet. Path found itself embroiled in an FTC investigation over privacy issues related to a feature that allowed the app to access the iPhone's entire address book in order to send invites to friends. But it wasn't like they meant to invite kids onto their social network, kids that could ostensibly be targeted by pedophiles trolling the network for twisted fun. The company even spotted the missing checks and balances that allowed underage kids to sign up and fixed it almost a year ago.
This is the point in the story when you have to wonder if Path is the only one who missed some checks and balances in its registration process. Guess what: It's totally not! In fact, compared to its big brother in Palo Alto, Path's number of underage registered users looks like a rounding error. There is another, bigger social network that's not only allowed underage children to register, it's been lobbying Washington, somewhat successfully, to change COPPA so that the illegal things it appears to be enabling aren't illegal any more. This social network's founder even suggested publically that he wants more kids to be on the site.
I am, of course, talking about Facebook, the book of faces that once included 7.5 million prepubescent users. That number comes from Consumer Reports who called it "troubling news" and concluded, "Clearly, using Facebook presents children and their friends and families with safety, security and privacy risks." This figure emerged six months after Facebook settled its own series of privacy violations with the FTC for an undisclosed sum. As a result of that settlement, Facebook is privvy to privacy audits every two years for the next 20 years. (Path must now do the same.) The FTC never really followed up on the alleged COPPA violations, or if it did, Facebook didn't have to fork over $800,000. Actually, if you use Path's settlement to calculate the cost per user, Facebook should have paid $2 billion for putting the safety of 7.5 million children at risk.
Do you know what happened instead? Washington finally responded to Facebook's lobbyists and changed COPPA. These weren't radical changes. The updated law still prohibted kids under 13 from registering for sites and actually broadened the definition of sites that target kids, meaning more of the Internet would face more oversight. That's good for you pedophile haters out there, i.e. everyone, but potentially bad for business in Silicon Valley.
The new COPPA did, however, include a loophole that could potentially allow Facebook to advertise to children. This wasn't enough for Zuckerberg and his clan, so Facebook sent a 20-page letter to the FTC imploring them to let kids at least use the Like button. It's free speech! "A government regulation that restricts teens’ ability to engage in protected speech — as the proposed COPPA Rule would do — raises issues under the First Amendment," Facebook wrote in the letter. Funny use of the word "teens" when talking about kids 12 and under, by the way.
Privacy and protecting kids online are huge issues and rather serious challenges for the Internet right now. Here's the long and short of it, though. Just because Path and Facebook allow kids to register for these sites does not mean that they're going to be taken away by Johnny Frisbeehands in his windowless van. It does mean that they're a little bit less safe than they would be if they stayed off of social networking sites. Is there a future in which these companies figure out a way to give kids access and protect them at the same time? Maybe, but we're talking about today and we're dealing with today's laws. The most anybody could ask for is that those laws treat everybody the same.
In other words, government, if you're going to charge one social network $800,000 for breaking a law, it's pretty shitty to let another bigger company with more lobbyists get away with it. Seriously, if you want to make an example of a social network, why not pick Facebook? For Christ's sake, there's a movie about the company called The Social Network. And finally, if you're going to put a price on enabling pedophiles, $2 billion seems like a better number than $800,000.