Archive for June 5th, 2012

Should 11-year-olds join Facebook?

(CNN) – Should young children be able to use Facebook?
And if so, under what conditions?

Those are the questions bloggers and Twitter users are batting around the Internet on Monday following a news report saying Facebook is looking into ways it could let kids under the age of 13 use the site with parental consent.

Currently, Facebook bans children younger than 13.

Data from Microsoft Research and Consumer Reports, however, show that many kids use the site anyway, often with their parents’ knowledge. A 2011 Consumer Reports survey found 7.5 million people younger than 13 use the site; nearly a third of 11-year-olds and more than half of 12-year-olds use Facebook with their parents’ knowledge, according to a 1,007-person survey supported by Microsoft Research.

Proponents of lifting Facebook’s under-13 ban say letting young kids on Facebook with the help of adults would allow them to use the social network more safely.

“Whether we like it or not, millions of children are using Facebook, and since there doesn’t seem to be a universally effective way to get them off the service, the best and safest strategy would be to provide younger children with a safe, secure and private experience that allows them to interact with verified friends and family members without having to lie about their age,” Larry Magid writes at Forbes.com.

Magid says Facebook for kids should not have ads and there need to be “extra privacy protections” that would involve parents helping their kids to use the social network safely.

Others say Facebook is trying to profit from the under-13 crowd.

Common Sense Media, an advocacy group, compared Facebook to “Big Tobacco.”

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Kids could someday get on Facebook, without lying

NEW YORK — Though Facebook bans children under 13, millions of them have profiles on the site by lying about their age.

The company is now testing ways to allow those kids to participate without needing to lie. This would likely be under parental supervision, such as by connecting children’s accounts to their parents’ accounts.

Like many other online services, Facebook prohibits kids under 13 because federal law requires companies to obtain parental consent if they want to collect information about those children.

Such information collection is central to Facebook. Every photo or status update a kid posts on Facebook could count as information collection. Many companies consider the parental-consent requirement too burdensome, so they simply ban all children under 13 instead.

But that ban is difficult to enforce. In many cases, parents themselves help children skirt it by setting up profiles for them and lying about their ages. There are an estimated 7.5 million kids under 13 on Facebook, out of more than 900 million users worldwide.

In a statement, Facebook noted that many recent reports have highlighted “just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services.”

“We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policymakers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment,” the company said.

Few details are available on the nature of Facebook’s tests, which The Wall Street Journal reported on in Monday’s editions. Relaxing the ban on younger children could be a long way off, or never get implemented, as happens with many features that Facebook tests.

The report comes just two weeks after Facebook began trading stock as a public company. Its stock price has fallen in part because of concerns about its ability to keep increasing revenue and make money from its growing mobile audience.

To James Steyer, the CEO of the nonprofit Common Sense Media, Facebook’s discussions on permitting young kids to join is about expanding its audience — and profits.

“With the growing concerns and pressure around Facebook’s business model, the company appears to be doing whatever it takes to identify new revenue streams and short-term corporate profits to impress spooked shareholders,” Steyer said in a statement.

But Stephen Balkan, the CEO of another kids-and-technology nonprofit, the Family Online Safety Institute, disagrees.

Balkan, who sits on Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board in an unpaid position, said the company has been discussing the issue for more than a year. That’s months before Facebook made regulatory filings in February for its initial public offering of stock, which took place in mid-May.

“It has nothing to do with the IPO,” he said.

Balkan offered some ideas about what Facebook could look like for kids. For one, the default setting to their account could be set to “friends only” so that strangers can’t see their posts. Teenagers who are 13 to 17 currently have their accounts set to “friends of friends” by default, so the under-13 restriction would be a step beyond that.

In addition, parents could have final say on whom their kids become friends with on Facebook. And Facebook could even keep advertising off kids’ accounts, he added.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some movement from Facebook this before the end of the year,” Balkan said. “By the way I think it would be a good thing if they do it right, rather than this untenable situation of just kicking off under-13s when they discover them.”

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Google accquires Meebo to help social networking push

Google is buying Silicon Valley startup Meebo to help expand its social networking service.

The acquisition announced Monday will bring more tools to Google Plus, an alternative to Facebook Inc.’s popular online hangout. Meebo started as a system for connecting people by instant message but has since built other communication features used by an audience of about 100 million Web people in the U.S.

Both companies are based in Mountain View, Calif. Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

“We are always looking for better ways to help users share content and connect with others across the Web, just as they do in real life,” Google said in a statement. “With the Meebo team’s expertise in social publisher tools, we believe they will be a great fit with the Google Plus team.”

Since its debut nearly a year ago, Google Plus has attracted more than 170 million users. Despite that impressive growth, Google so far has had trouble persuading people to visit its social networking website as regularly as Facebook’s more than 900 million users frequent its website.

Meebo works with publishers and advertisers to help them connect with Web surfers for longer periods.

“Together with Google, we’re super jazzed to roll up our sleeves and get cracking on even bigger and better ways to help users and website owners alike,” Meebo wrote in a Monday blog post.

Meebo has raised $70 million in venture capital since it was founded in 2005 by Seth Sternberg, Elaine Wherry and Sandy Jen. Sternberg, who formerly helped IBM Corp. identify acquisition targets, served as Meebo’s CEO.

Google Inc. has spent more than $16 billion buying 140 companies since the end of 2009. That includes the biggest deal in Google’s 14-year history, a just-completed $12.5 billion acquisition of cellphone maker Motorola Mobility Holdings.

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Microsoft’s Xbox to sell music, goes mobile

Microsoft Corp took another step toward its goal of turning the Xbox into the nexus of household entertainment, unveiling software to let users view extra content, control games and surf the Internet from their tablets and smartphones.

The software maker, whose market-leading Xbox already streams Netflix and ESPN and other channels, unveiled a “SmartGlass” application on Monday that links the console to mobile devices powered by Windows or Apple Inc’s iOS and Google Inc’s Android.

The U.S. software corporation has been trying for years to make a living-room entertainment hub of its Xbox, which has sold 67 million units since it launched in 2005. Now, the company is trying to expand the Xbox’s entertainment menu and hook it up to “companion” mobile devices as a way to boost sales of its seven-year old console.

On Monday, it also announced Internet browsing will be made available on Xboxes, including through voice recognition in a nod to the popular “Siri” function on the newest iPhones. And it talked about plans to sell cloud-based music a la Apple’s iTunes or Amazon.com Inc.

Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter deemed “SmartGlass” a nice feature — especially how it turned devices into TV remotes — but added it wasn’t clear how essential it will become.

But having Internet Explorer on Xboxes will help Microsoft compete with a new generation of “smart” or Web-enabled TVs made by Samsung and others that let viewers stream content from online services such as YouTube.

“With an open browser, it’s like you have a smart TV on an Xbox, which could mean you don’t go out and buy a connected TV if you already have an Xbox at home,” he said.

REMOTELY CONTROL TV SCREENS

“SmartGlass” lets users remotely control TV displays from touchscreen enabled mobile devices — swiping, pinching and tapping just like one would on an iPhone.

It also allows viewers to see “companion content,” from TV to games, on the smaller screen. For example, gamers playing Electronic Arts Inc’s “Madden NFL” on an Xbox in the same room could design plays on individual tablets without showing their opponent. Or, someone watching “Game of Thrones” on the “HBO GO” streaming service via Xbox could simultaneously browse websites about the show’s cast.

Microsoft is the second company at this year’s E3 in Los Angeles — the annual gathering of the industry’s top executives and analysts and fans — to show off services that employ a second screen.

Nintendo’s GamePad controller, unveiled on Monday, is used in conjunction with the company’s consoles and features a screen that can display additional content and gameplay.

Microsoft also gave the audience a sneak peek at “Xbox Music,” which will work on Xboxes as well as on Windows Phone and Windows 8 devices. And it drew cheers from the fanboys in the audience with new versions of its “Halo” and “Gears of War” shooter games.

Shares of Microsoft closed down 0.4 percent at $28.55.

For some though, the proliferation of devices may be too much. South Park co-creator Trey Parker, invited onstage with partner-in-crime Matt Stone, poked fun at the concept of household connectivity.

“How many times have you watched South Park, thinking I want to play a game on my tablet, while connected to my oven sitting in a fridge?” he quipped as Microsoft executives looked on.

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Flame exploits Windows bug to attack PCs

Microsoft Corp warned that a bug in Windows allowed PCs across the Middle East to become infected with the Flame virus and released a software fix to fight the espionage tool that surfaced last week.

Security experts said they were both surprised and impressed by the approach that the attackers had used, which was to disguise Flame as a legitimate program built by Microsoft.

“I woke up to this news and I couldn’t believe it. I had to ask, ‘Am I reading this right?'” said Roel Schouwenberg of Russian security firm Kaspersky Lab, one of the researchers who helped discover the Flame virus.

Experts described the method as “elegant” and they believed it had likely been used to deliver other cyber weapons yet to be identified.

“It would be logical to assume that they would have used it somewhere else at the same time, Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer for security software maker F-Secure.

If other types of cyber weapons were indeed delivered to victim PCs using the same approach as Flame, then they will likely be exposed very quickly now that Microsoft has identified the problem, said Adam Meyers, director of intelligence for security firm CrowdStrike.

Cyber weapons that bear the fake Microsoft code will either stop working or lose some of their camouflage, said Ryan Smith, chief research scientist with security firm Accuvant.

A spokeswoman for Microsoft declined to comment on whether other viruses had exploited the same flaw in Windows or if the company’s security team was looking for similar bugs in the operating system.

Flame’s code included what is known as a digital certificate, which falsely identified it as a piece of software from Microsoft.

The creators of the virus obtained that certificate by manipulating a component of the Windows operating system known as terminal services licensing, or TS licensing, that is designed to authorize business customers to use advanced features of Windows.

A bug in TS licensing allowed the hackers to use it to create fake certificates that identified Flame as being from Microsoft, Mike Reavey, a senior director with Microsoft’s Security Response Center, said in a blog post.

He feared that other hackers might be able to copy the technique to launch more widespread attacks with other types of viruses, Reavey said.

“We continue to investigate this issue and will take any appropriate actions to help protect customers,” Reavey said in the blog post.

News of the Flame virus, which surfaced a week ago, generated headlines around the world as researchers said that technical evidence suggests it was built on behalf of the same nation or nations that commissioned the Stuxnet worm that attacked Iran’s nuclear program in 2010. Researchers are still gathering information about the virus.

Microsoft’s warning is available at http://blogs.technet.com/b/msrc/

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