Facebook Seeks Patent for Tech to Let Kids on Its Network (Legally)

Children Under 13 Are Currently Excluded From Facebook

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Credit: Meg Roussos/Bloomberg

Facebook restricts users to those over the age of 13, but anyone who's talked to a tween lately knows how effective that is.

But now it appears Facebook wants to create a way for young people to go legit on the network -- and still comply with the law.

In a patent application filed in November of 2012 and made public yesterday, Facebook describes a system to let parents authorize and supervise accounts for younger children in compliance with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. That law regulates how websites and apps can collect data from children younger than 13 and calls for "verifiable parental consent" from publishers that do.

Facebook has been working on tech along these lines since at least June 2012, according to a Wall Street Journal article then that said the company was testing ways to link children's accounts with their guardians' and for guardians to approve kids' friend requests and apps.

Facebook has subsequently kept mum about the prospect of a version for younger children, but the potential advantages are obvious. It would afford a pipeline of new users and start building the Facebook habit at a younger age. Adolescents now have a widening array of options to choose from when they turn 13, including Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook-owned Instagram, and Facebook is said to be seeing its share of their attention slip.

Of course, plenty of children under 13 already use Facebook, since it's as simple as falsifying your birth date when registering for an account. A Consumer Reports study from 2012 estimated that 5.6 million kids younger than the official threshold were on the social network.

Facebook's patent application focuses largely on how parental supervision settings could be configured. "The verified parent of a child user provides the social network system with administrative settings that are used by the social networking system," according to the filing, "along with the child user's age, to regulate the child user's access ...."

Why Facebook would want to patent the technology -- and whether it is in fact patentable -- isn't clear. The company didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

(UPDATE: In a statement Friday night, a Facebook spokeswoman said the application doesn't necessarily mean the company will go in that direction. "Child safety advocates, policymakers and companies have discussed how best to help parents keep their kids safe online," she said in the statement. "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.")

One possible goal of the system outlines in the application is somehow cornering the market for younger users and become the default entry-level social network. It's no small incentive for a business whose continued growth is contingent on sustaining high user engagement.

"If they're able to be the first to market and exclude other companies from creating similar methodologies, that's a good way to capture market share," said Daliah Saper, an intellectual-property attorney in Chicago.

It's also an unknown whether regulators would give their stamp of approval to a new method of obtaining parental consent. Facebook's patent application argues that current methods -- like requiring credit card information, contacting parents via mail or fax, and obtaining signatures on a content form --aren't practical with big numbers of people.

"These methods may be ineffective and burdensome on a larger scale, especially when hundreds or thousands of children request access to a website each day," it says.

Politico reported on the patent application earlier on Friday.

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