Facebook's chief technology officer, Bret Taylor, was grilled by senators Thursday on the adequacy of the social network's policy barring users under 13 years old after a recent report found that millions of children had Facebook accounts.
"I want you defend your company here because I don't know how you can," Sen. Jay Rockefeller told Taylor during a Senate commerce subcommitee hearing on mobile privacy.
Though Facebook's terms of service prohibit children from using their site, the West Virginia Democrat questioned its efforts to verify users' ages, citing a recent Consumer Reports study that estimated 7.5 million children had profiles on the social network.
Rockefeller also expressed concerned about Facebook's app, which Apple's App Store describes as appropriate for all users over four years of age.
"That's actually news to me," Taylor said of the app's rating. "We don't allow people to have accounts under the age of 13... Certainly your iPhone app has the same rules and conditions governing it as our website, which means that no one under the age of 13 can create an account."
"I appreciate that, but it doesn't appear to be the truth," Rockefeller responded. "You can't just dismiss that seven-and-a-half million users are younger than 13 and say you have a policy that doesn't allow that to happen," he added later.
Rockefeller recounted a conversation he had had with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in which she told him that the company had 100 people in place to supervise content posted by the site's 600 million users. The West Virginia senator expressed strong doubts that such a small team could effectively prevent bullying and other abuses on the social network.
"My reaction is, that is indefensible," he said. "It's unbelievable that you'd say that."
In an aside, the 73-year-old senator suggested that problems with Facebook's privacy protections could in part be traced to the young age of its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
"It's my general feeling that people who are 20, 21, 22 years old really don't have any social values at this point," said Rockefeller, noting that Zuckerberg started working on Facebook while a college student at Harvard University. "I think he was focused on how his business model would work and he wanted to make it bigger and do it faster than anyone else ever had, and nothing I know suggests otherwise."
Taylor noted that Facebook has instituted features, such as its Social Reporting tool, to allow users to flag content that violates the site's policies and, when relevant, alert parents and teachers to the posts.
"We work hard to protect individuals' privacy by giving them control over the information they share and the connections they make. For Facebook -- like other providers of social technologies -- getting this balance right is not only the right thing to do, but a matter of survival," Taylor said in his prepared testimony.
"Our view is there's not enough being done," she said, referring to the site's measures to prevent underage users. "If we took a small amount of the time that any of these companies spend innovating products and start to think about how to protect kids and -- frankly -- adults, it would go a long way."
"These are organizations that have created a platform that 600 million people use across the globe... and instead of spending money to try to hire PR firms to try and take down the other company, let's take that money and spend it on figuring out technological ways to protect our kids," Shenkan explained, referencing the revelation that Facebook had paid a company to plant negative stories about Google in the press.
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