Less than two months after the launch of MessengerKids, Facebook’s new child-focused correspondence app has received backlash from child-health advocates, including a plea directly to Mark Zuckerberg to pull the plug. On January 30th, the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood published an open letter compiled and signed by over 110 medical professionals, educators, and child development experts, which accuses the tech giant of forsaking its promise to “do better” for society and targeting children under 13 to enter the world of social media.  

At its introduction in early December 2017, MessengerKids was branded as another tool for parents struggling to raise children in the digital age. After installing the app on their child’s device(s), parents can control their child’s contact list from their own Facebook account. The app has kid-friendly gifs, frames, and stickers, built in screening for age-inappropriate content in conversations, and a reporting feature for both parents and children to hopefully combat cyberbullying. It contains no advertisements, and the child’s personal information isn’t collected, in accordance with US federal law. Creating an account does not create a Facebook profile, but nonetheless, the service introduces children to social media and their own online presence.

Contrary to the image MessengerKids hoped to present, child-health advocates have interpreted the application less as a gatekeeper for online safety and more as a gateway for unhealthy online habits. In its letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the CCFC cites multiple studies linking screen time and social media presence to depression and negative mental health effects. In addition, the app will interfere with the development of social skills, like the “ability to read human emotion, delay gratification, and engage in the physical world.” The letter argues that the connectivity MessengerKids promises is not an innovation, as these communication methods already exist with parent’s approval or supervision (e.g. Skype or parents’ Facebook accounts); nor does the app provide the solution for underage Facebook accounts, as there’s little incentive for those users to migrate to a service with fewer features designed for younger kids. Instead, it reads as a play to bring users onboard even earlier but marketing specifically to the untapped, under 13 audience.

In addition to the psychological development concerns, a user’s early-instilled brand trust may surpass the perceived importance of privacy later on. Data spread and usage is already a foggy concept to adults, and young children certainly won’t understand the consequences of sharing personal information. This is what the US federal law (“COPPA”) hopes to mitigate by protecting underage users from targeted data collection. MessengerKids normalizes an online identity early on, so young users may not consider the risks of sharing their data with Facebook or other online services once they age out of COPPA protection. The prioritization of online identity that MessengerKids may propagate presents a developmental concern which may affect how those after generation Z  value online privacy and personal data collection.

While Facebook seems to have done its homework by engaging a panel of child-development and family advocates, this could be another high-risk situation for user trust, especially in the midst of the fake-news controversy. Facebook’s discussions with its team of advisors are neither publicly available nor subject to the review process of academic or medical research. With the CCFC’s public backlash, parents who wouldn’t have questioned the feature otherwise may now perceive the impact of the app and its introduction as a medical decision for their child’s health. A curated panel of experts may not be enough to assure parents that Facebook does, in fact, care about kids as more than potential users. The app has no built-in capability to report or prevent cyberbullying, so if Facebook is concerned about unmitigated online activity why not just enforce the existing policy of age restrictions?

Comparing the “benefits” of this service to the developmental risks, the private business interests have clearly outweighed Facebook’s concerns for users’ well-being. While changing social interactions has long been Facebook’s trademark, MessengerKids threatens to alter interpersonal relationships by molding the children who form them and could additionally undermine data responsibility by normalizing online presence at an early age. It appears that Facebook is willing to risk the current generation’s trust to gain the next generation’s- a profitable, but not necessarily ethical decision.

TL;DR

Wi-Fi networks are on the cusp of a step-change improvement in speed and bandwidth. This will make previously-impossible technological intrusions (like multi-gig-per-second data transmission) feasible. Government involvement in the oversight of these new networks may increase consumers’ anxiety. Society should welcome this change, but perspectives on the boundaries between private and public formed in the era of 4G need to be updated.

Detailed Discussion 

The mobile networks in developed nations have been sufficient to support substantial progress toward connecting people and things to each other. However, these networks were built primarily to support voice communication and other standard applications like email and web surfing. Due to a variety of technical challenges, they are struggling to meet the demands of more demanding applications like augmented reality (AR), autonomous vehicles, and always-on HD video streaming. To address these concerns, private telecoms firms in the United States, China, Japan, and South Korea have been racing fervently to build out so-called fifth-generation (“5G”) network architectures.

If / when they are successful, 5G will fundamentally change the relationship private individuals have with technology and the ubiquity of computing in society. The promise of 5G is that mobile communication networks will be able to tolerate much larger transfer volumes with lower latency. This will make possible some transfers which were previously prohibitively costly or slow. According to an article from DMV.org, modern automobiles may be able to continuously transmit information about your location, identity (e.g. fingerprints, facial images), and even your health (such as your heart rate and posture). Most connected devices do not have the storage capacity locally to keep long time series of all that information, but the latency and throughput guarantees provided by 5G would allow it to be streamed out to a persistent data store where it could be used to build a more detailed profile and possibly be joined with other information about the device or individual(s) interacting with it.

In light of the new data transfers that will be possible, private individuals need to consider the new context within which they will be asked to make disclosure choices. In general, more consideration will need to be given to longitudinal data and what can be learned from it. For example, disclosing “location” in the 4G world may (for some applications / devices) just mean that you are consenting to the existence of a real-time endpoint that holds your information and can be used to trigger events like location-based ads. However, disclosing “location” in the 5G world may carry more weight, as it may imply consenting to the disclosure of time-series data which could be used to derive other information like patterns of behavior.

To complicate things further, it is possible that in the United States 5G may become a government-run public utility. A few days ago, the Trump Administration floated the possibility of a nationalized 5G wireless communication network. Today’s modern communication infrastructure is dominated by a handful of private firms and improvements in the infrastructure is largely driven by competitive forces. In an internal memo obtained by Axios, the administration cited national security concerns as the main reason it is considering subverting this competitive process. By some accounts, China’s Huawei Technologies is leading the 5G race in the private sector, and the Trump administration is worried about the national security implications of having a critical part of the U.S. communication infrastructure controlled by a foreign firm. If the federal government builds and maintains the network infrastructure, it may make it easier for government agencies to access the data traveling over it.

To be clear, the intention of this post is not to convince readers that the 5G-pocalypse is coming and  that we should fear its might. The promised improvements to mobile networks will open new opportunities for creativity to flourish, for individuals to connect, and for the reliability and effectiveness of institutions and infrastructure to improve. This post merely serves to raise the concern that 5G will alter the context in which individuals make data privacy decisions.

 

References:

  • “Trump team considers nationalizing 5G network”. (Axios)
  • “How Huawei is leading 5G development”. (Forbes)
  • “5G Network Architecture, A High-Level Overview”. (Huawei)
  • “1 billion could be using 5G by 2023 with China set to dominate”. (CNBC)
  • “Autonomous cars, big data, and the post-privacy world”. (DMV.org)
  • “Next-generation 5G speeds will be about 10 to 20 Gbps”. (Network World)