Social networking sites, including Facebook, are not doing enough to protect children from online bullying and potential sexual predators, the European Commission said on Tuesday.
After examining 14 leading social networks, many of them popular with teenagers and pre-teens, the Commission said it was disappointed by the default settings most of them had come up with to protect users' profiles and data.
Clearly the Commission is not happy with the situation, spokesman Jonathan Todd told reporters as he unveiled a report showing that, from the Commission's point of view, only two of the 14 sites had adequate default settings.
Neelie Kroes, the Commission's head of digital affairs, will discuss her concerns with the companies and encourage them to use settings that better protect the 77 percent of Europe's 13- to 16-year-olds who use the sites, Todd said.
We're not in the domain of legislation, we're in the domain of self-regulation, he said, underlining that the networks themselves had come up with a set of voluntary principles and it was those principles that needed improving.
We would like the new version of the principles to address this issue and to take a more active role in protecting minor's profiles, he said.
Bebo and Myspace were the only two sites the Commission felt provided adequate default settings. Facebook, the world's most popular social network, with more than 500 million users, was listed among the 12 that fell short. The others were: Arto, Giovani.it, Hyves, Nasza-klaza.pl, Netlog, One.lt, Rate.ee, SchlerVZ, IRC Galleria, Tuenti and Zap.lu.
A further nine networking sites will be reviewed later this year to determine whether minors are adequately protected. The EU did not say which these sites would be.
Internet privacy is a growing concern for European Union policymakers as they try to balance the business interests of websites keen to sign up as many users as possible, and their duty to protect EU citizens under the law.
Facebook was not immediately reachable for comment. It is not the first criticism of Facebook from the EU. It came under fire for its facial recognition technology, which officials say may violate EU privacy protection rules.
I am disappointed that most social networking sites are failing to ensure that minors' profiles are accessible only to their approved contacts by default, Kroes said in a statement.
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.
The report showed 38 percent of 9- to 12-year-olds are regular users of social network sites and only 56 percent of 11 to 12-year-olds surveyed said they knew how to change privacy settings.
(Reporting by Christopher Le Coq; Editing by Louise Ireland and Rex Merrifield)