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Social Networks Not Protecting Children Online

June 22, 2011

Not enough is done by social networking sites such as Facebook to protect children from potential dangers like online bullying and pedophiles, the European Commission reports.

Fourteen leading social network sites were tested by the Commission and only two ““ Bebo and MySpace ““ had the necessary precautions to make sure that “potential strangers” are not able to gain access to profiles of minors.

“I am disappointed that most social networking sites are failing to ensure that minors’ profiles are accessible only to their approved contacts by default,” European Commission vice president Neelie Kroes says in a statement to the AFP news agency.

Authorities in Brussels report that the amount of minors who use the Internet and who subscribe to social networking sites is growing. Out of all minors using the Internet, 77 percent are aged 13 to 16, while 38 percent range in age from 9 to 12.

Kroes will urge online social network companies to self-regulate themselves.

“We’re not in the domain of legislation, we’re in the domain of self-regulations,” spokesperson for the Commission Jonathan Todd told Reuters.

The networks themselves have already come up with a set of voluntary principles, reports Reuters. But Todd says that the Commission “would like the new version of the principles to address this issue and to take more active role in protecting minor’s profiles.”

“This is not only to protect minors from unwanted contacts but also to protect their online reputation,” Kroes says. “Youngsters do not fully understand the consequences of disclosing too much of their personal lives online.”

The practice of tagging people in pictures is of particular concern because it increases the risk for teenagers of “grooming and cyber-bullying,” European Union (EU) executive says.

European privacy regulators are also not fond of Facebook’s facial recognition technology, which makes suggestions of names for people in newly uploaded photographs on the site that is used by about 600 million people, reports AFP.

Of the fourteen sites tested, Bebo and MySpace were the only two sites that provided adequate default settings. Facebook failed the test, along with twelve others: Arto, Giovani.it, Hyves, Nasza-klaza.pl, Netlog, One.lt, Rate.ee, SchlerVZ, IRC Galleria, Tuenti and Zap.lu.

Nine other networking sites, which have not yet been named by the EU, will be reviewed later this year to determine if they adequately protect minors, the EU says.

European Union policymakers believe that Internet privacy is a growing concern, and they try to balance the interests of businesses that are focused on signing up as many users as possible with their duty to protect EU citizens under the law, says Reuters.

“Education and parental guidance are necessary, but we need to back these up with protection until youngsters can make decisions based on full awareness of the consequences,” Kroes says.

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