Facebook Links Up With Attorneys General In 19 U.S. States For Teen Social Networking Safety Program

Facebook is taking a step today in its bid to position itself as the privacy-respecting social network: it is announcing an alliance with the U.S.’s National Association of Attorneys General to provide teens and their parents more information and tools to manage their profiles on Facebook and beyond to counter its less flattering image as a “ever-expanding data collection octopus.”

So far, Facebook has linked up with attorneys general in 19 states to put out “state-specific public service announcements,” starting this Tuesday, which will also include a safety video and a privacy tip sheet. These will be distributed on Facebook’s own safety page, as well on the AGs’ Facebook Pages and their own websites.

It’s important for Facebook to demonstrate that it’s coming out in front on issues like privacy and child protection online. The social network — which by its definition celebrates sharing information with others — often gets scrutinized for how it pushes the boundaries of privacy. Showing that it’s willing to make it as easy as possible for people — and specifically more vulnerable young people — to control their data could help mitigate regulators making those moves on Facebook’s behalf.

Kickstarted by the Maryland attorney general and NAAG president Douglas F. Gansler, and announced by him today during the NAAG’s Privacy in the Digital Age conference, it’s a mark of where Facebook places this in terms of priorities that COO Sheryl Sandberg is getting behind the alliance.

“At Facebook, we work hard to make sure people understand how to control their information and stay safe online. We’re always looking for new partners in that endeavor – that’s why we’re thrilled to collaborate with the National Association of Attorneys General,” said Sandberg in a NAAG statement. It looks like the idea is to bring other state attorneys general on board, too. “We’re grateful for Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler’s leadership on this issue, and we look forward to working with him and attorneys general around the country.”

Privacy, specifically that of younger users, is an increasingly more important point as Facebook continues to add more sophisticated features and services to its platform, making it potentially more challenging for people to control how and where their profiles and information get used. Facebook Home, the new Android launcher, is an example of how Facebook sees a future for very persistent, always-present applications.

But just because Facebook is taking decisive steps does not mean that regulators and others are looking any less closely in what the social network does and how users are faring on it.

“We hope this campaign will encourage consumers to closely manage their privacy and these tools and tips will help provide a safer online experience. Of course, attorneys general will continue to actively protect consumers’ online privacy as well,” said Gansler in the NAAG statement.

Indeed, the wider scope of the conference currently underway is to take steps to update laws to be closer in line with how people share information in an always-online world. “State laws need to be updated to reflect our modern era in which the very nature of privacy and personal information is changing,” he added. “Attorneys general
have before us an extraordinary opportunity to reorient our enforcement and advocacy efforts toward the unique privacy challenges posed by the digital economy.”

And there are also other groups that continue to apply pressure on both government officials and Facebook on the issue of privacy. One, the Center for Digital Democracy, has already come out criticising today’s news.

“Maryland AG Doug Gansler appears to be more interested friending Mark Zuckerberg than working to protect teen privacy on Facebook,” Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, wrote TechCrunch in an email. “Facebook’s practices regarding teens, especially its data collection and ad targeting, require an investigation–not just some glossy educational videos and tip sheets. As president of the National Association of Attorneys General, Mr. Gansler should be working to really protect privacy on Facebook — instead of a PR effort designed to further his political career. Facebook is a complex and deliberately ever-expanding data collection octopus. Young people are the subject of powerful Facebook marketing campaigns pushing junk food and other questionable practices. Gansler’s feel good effort fails to deliver what parents, teens and other Facebook users require: strong privacy safeguards giving them real control over their data.”

This is not the first step that Facebook has made to help younger users better manage their privacy. In February, just after launching its new, dynamic search engine called Graph Search, Facebook followed up with a note on how it affect teens. Specifically, Facebook limits results in Graph Searches made by teens to other results from those aged or aimed at 13-17 year-olds, following on from its existing limitations for teens:

“On Facebook, many things teens are likely to do – such as adding information to their timelines or sharing status updates – can only be shared with a maximum of Friends of Friends,” Facebook noted at the time. “In addition, for certain searches that could help to identify a young person by age or by their location, results will only show to that person’s Friends, or Friends of Friends who are also between the age of 13-17.”

In addition to efforts to give people a better grip on their privacy, Facebook has also tried to illuminate more of the dynamics about how parents and their kids interact on Facebook.