Facebook patent application: Verifying parents' consent for kids under 13

Major online companies have wrestled for years with the question of how – and whether – to let younger children use their services. Now it seems Facebook wants to patent a system for parents to supervise their kids’ activity, after giving permission for them to use the social network.

Facebook currently bans users under 13. And the company is downplaying its interest in the controversial idea. The patent application was originally submitted in 2012 but surfaced recently on the website of the US Patent and Trademark Office, where it was spotted this week by a sharp-eyed scribe for Politico.

A spokesman told us Facebook is not “actively pursuing” the research that led to the application. He added:

“Child safety advocates, policymakers and companies have discussed how best to help parents keep their kids safe online. Like any responsible company, we looked at ways to tackle this issue, but a patent application based on two-year-old research is not a predictor of future work in this area.”

Many children’s advocates worry that kids under 13 are too young and vulnerable to a variety of bad influences online, from predators to advertisers.  But with studies showing that millions of kids have opened Facebook accounts after lying about their age, some have suggested it would be better to allow them on the site, with responsible supervision.

We’ve reported on Facebook’s deliberations on this issue before. A federal law known as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act or COPPA prohibits companies from collecting a variety of personal data on kids under 13, without first obtaining parental consent. Facebook, of course, does collect a lot of data from its users.

What’s interesting about Facebook’s application is that it shows how the company might approach the task of obtaining parents’ consent – and of verifying that the person who claims to be the child’s parent isn’t really their best friend from math class.

The patent documents suggest Facebook could devise software that analyzes the locations of the two users, or their photos and other posts, to confirm their relationship. Users could be asked to answer questions or identify profile photos of other contacts they have on the site. The application even suggests using algorithms to check the account of the purported “parent,” to see if it shows routine or suspicious interactions with e-commerce or online banking sites that adults typically use.

The system described in the application also provides ways for parents to monitor and limit their kids’ interactions on Facebook. But experts say that any system like this would probably be scrutinized by the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces the COPPA law. While some sites use credit card accounts or similar information to verify parental permission, the FTC has previously rejected another method proposed by a company called AssertID, which would have asked other friends on a social network to verify a parents’ identity.

(Photo of Facebook sign by Kirstina Sangsahachart/Bay Area News Group)

Brandon Bailey Brandon Bailey (349 Posts)

Brandon Bailey covers Google, Facebook and Yahoo for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on the business and culture of the Internet.