Facebook’s ‘watered-down’ protection for young Australians

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Facebook has tightened how advertisers can target its youngest users ahead of international regulation and after scrutiny from digital rights groups, including a cohort calling for regulator-led protections in Australia.

Overnight, Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram said it would stop letting advertisers target under 18 users based on anything except their age, gender and location. The social media giant said the changes were global and would apply to Instagram, Facebook and Messenger.

Users will be made available for unrestricted targeting by Facebook when they turn 18.

Facebook will also default under-16 users’ profiles to private and use AI to make it harder for potentially suspicious accounts to find young people.

The changes come just a month ahead of the enforcement of the UK’s Age Appropriate Design Code which require Facebook to design its services “in the best interests of the child” and prohibits tracking them by default. A similar code is to be rolled out in Ireland.

Facebook has tightened its protections for young users.  Photo: Twin Design / Shutterstock.com

The tightening also follows a study by rights group Reset Australia in April found Facebook was tracking Australian teenagers online and selling them as audiences to alcohol, gambling and smoking advertisers.

Reset Australia’s Dr Rys Farthing said the changes were welcome but represent a “token” version for Australia  compared to the regulator led protections in the UK and Ireland.

“They announced this watered-down version for the rest of the world because our regulations aren’t strong enough,” Dr Farthing told InnovationAus.

Under the regulator led initiative in Ireland, Facebook is prohibited from profiling under 18 users for commercial advertising purposes. While in both the UK and Ireland Facebook must default under 18 users’ profiles to private.

But the global changes announced by Facebook lower that private account default to only 16.

“[The global changes] still suggests that regulation is needed,” Dr Farthing said.

“Because where regulators lead tech giants seem to follow, and where regulation doesn’t leave children and young people are getting these watered down versions.”

Reset Australia is leading a campaign for similar protections for young Australians from digital services, and is eyeing the upcoming Privacy Act review as a way to establish a regulator led scheme.

“The best way to do it would have a code that was written and overseen by the regulator,” Dr farthing said. “An industry led code would not be strong enough.”

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