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Facebook is coming for your children

Wearing the mantle of education reform, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg told attendees at a recent summit on innovation in education that, "My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age."

A really, really good way to do that, Zuckerberg said, is to let kids ages 13 and under join Facebook. 

Currently, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) makes it hard for Facebook, and other websites that collect information, to allow users younger than 13 to join — though at least 7.5 million U.S. kids younger than 13 lie and do it anyway.

Unmentioned in the Fortune article on NewSchools Summit talk, however, is that lifting the age restriction might be a really, really good way to avoid future lawsuits like the three Facebook currently faces for failure to obtain parental consent for the use of minors' images in ads on the site.

Also unmentioned: Facebook's alliance with Google, Skype, Yahoo, Twitter, Zynga and — um — eHarmony to oppose a California children's privacy bill that would require users’ permission to display personal information, such as home addresses and phone numbers.

One more thing: Legally allowing kids 12 and under to join Facebook is also a really, really good way to make (even more) serious bank.

Facebook is said to generate $2 billion in revenue annually, mostly from outside marketers. Its "half a billion users have made it an attractive target for advertisers, including Coca-Cola Co., JPMorganChase & Co. and Adidas AG," AdAge reports.

Now that you're no longer able to hide your interests and other personal details, that information is used to show you ads related to your info, so that you're more likely to respond.

What's more, if you "Like" a Product Page, there doesn't seem to be anyway to prevent your "Likes" from being shared with your Facebook friends, or your picture from showing up in an ad targeted on their pages.

That's the big beef in the lawsuit initiated by Brooklyn resident Scott Nastro on behalf of his son Justin, reports AdAge. It states that "Facebook, Inc. has regularly and repeatedly used the names and/or likenesses of plaintiff ... for the commercial purpose of marketing, advertising, selling and soliciting the purchase of goods and services."

Facebook told AdAge and other news organizations that this lawsuit and the other two are without merit and that the company plans to fight them "vigorously" in court. AdAge adds that Facebook "sees the teenage market as crucial to its success."

In seeking out the youth market, the fairly young company isn't blazing new ground. The American Academy of Pediatrics points out:

Increasingly, advertisers are targeting younger and younger children in an effort to establish "brand-name preference" at as early an age as possible. This targeting occurs because advertising is a $250 billion/year industry with 900,000 brands to sell, and children and adolescents are attractive consumers: teenagers spend $155 billion/year, children younger than 12 years spend another $25 billion, and both groups influence perhaps another $200 billion of their parents' spending per year.

What's more, "research has shown that young children — younger than 8 years — are cognitively and psychologically defenseless against advertising," writes the AAP. "They do not understand the notion of intent to sell and frequently accept advertising claims at face value."

Of the 20 million minors in the U.S. who actively use Facebook, 7.5 million are younger than the social network's minimum age of 13, according to a study by Consumer Reports. Of that number, more than 5 million are younger than 10.

What kids younger than 13 could join Facebook without government restrictions (instead of lying about their age)? "We'd take a lot of precautions to make sure that they [younger kids] are safe," Zuckerberg said.

When asked for clarification on Zuckerberg's reported comments at the education summit, Facebook emailed this statement:

Facebook is currently designed for two age groups (13-18 year olds and 18 and up), and we provide extensive safety and privacy controls based on the age provided. However, recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to implement age restrictions on the Internet and that there is no single solution to ensuring younger children don’t circumvent a system or lie about their age. As Mark noted, education is critical to ensuring that people of all ages use the Internet safely and responsibly. We agree with safety experts that communication between parents or guardians and kids about their use of the Internet is vital.

The email also pointed to Facebook's growing resources for kids, parents and teachers, including the new social reporting tool and digital safety resource page for teachers.  Last year, Facebook announced a partnership with the PTA to "promote responsible and safe Internet use to kids, parents and teachers." The social network also added a detailed Family Safety Center recently, but as AdAge notes, there's no tips on how to teach kids about the influence of advertising.

How kids would benefit from an early indoctrination into social networking (and the integrated advertising that comes with it) remains to be seen, "because of the restrictions we haven’t even begun this learning process," Zuckerberg said at the summit.

How might those restrictions be lifted?

Facebook is ramping up its Washington, D.C. efforts. The social network spent $230,000 on lobbying in the first quarter of 2011, five times more than it did the year before, the Huffington Post reports. Facebook also hired "two outside lobbying firms and four new Washington staff members, bringing its staff head count to 10 at its D.C. office," according to the Wall Street Journal.

The money Facebook is dropping in the beltway is sofa change compared to Google's lobbying tab —$1.1 million in 2011's first quarter. Working  to influence laws to suit its needs is how big business rolls. As a ginormous companies go, Facebook probably isn't more or less evil than others. It provides an amoral product for the purpose of making money and gaining power, and tells its customers their needs come first. 

Last week, the Senate Commerce Committee pressed Facebook, as well as Apple, Google and other Silicon Valley players, on data collection, with extra ire aimed at kids' mobile and online privacy. Telling a Facebook rep, "I want you to defend your company here because I don't know how you can,"Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said of CEO Zuckerberg, "I think he was focused on how the business model would work. ... He wanted to make it bigger and faster and better than anybody else ever had."

Yet Facebook's cavalcade of bad PR from its ambivalent relationship with our privacy is an ironic bonus for users, who prefer complaining about the social network on the social network, rather than quitting.

All the same, Facebook seems to have gone through intense media training in the last couple of years, presenting a user-focused company line accompanied with the repeated message that total disclosure is totally awesome for children and other living things. 

Zuckerburg, once an awkward public speaker, is increasingly smooth in public forums and shares more of his personal information on the social network where he expects you to freely share yours. Still, when one considers Facebook's not-so-open PR attack on Google, the Facebook CEO's much-hyped profile status change to "in a relationship" and the new Facebook Page for his brand new puppy come off like Jedi mind tricks.

Same goes for the $100 million he pledged to the school system in Newark, N.J. — though that's awesome they got it. At the education summit, Zuckerberg just so happened to mention that "improving education and making the Internet more open are two of his favorite dinnertime topics," which also seems scripted.

Social media does have a place in the classroom, and organizations such as the Ontario College of Teachers are pioneering effective ways to do that. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other websites are now a student's main window on the world, and it is a disservice to students not to instruct them on how things work on the Internet.

Just keep in mind, when Zuckerberg told the education summit that going after the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act "will be a fight we take on at some point," believe that he means it. Just maybe not in the way you want him to.

More on the annoying way we live now:

Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah about online privacy, then asks you to join her self-righteous bloviating on Facebook and/or Twitter ... because that's how she rolls.