In a desperate attempt to placate nervous shareholders, Facebook has launched a pay-per-play gambling app called ‘Bingo Friendzy’. This, in turn, has brought about a considerable amount of alarm from organisations focussed on child welfare. In response to these concerns and others, a spokesman for Facebook cited the protections that are in place in the UK concerning betting by saying that “Real money gaming is a popular and well-regulated activity in the UK and we are allowing a partner to offer their games to adult users on the Facebook platform in a safe and controlled manner” but the facts are different as the game will not be regulated by the UK Gambling Commission because the developer, Gamesys, is based in Gibraltar, out of reach of the mainland regulatory body.
The product itself is no less worrisome. The advertisement for Bingo Friendzy, what is after all the publicly-visible interface of the product, appears more like a portal to a website for kids to download cuddly emoticons than the gateway to a gambling platform that offers close to $100,000 as a top prize. Facebook say that they will be using ‘age-gating’ technology to ensure that children don’t access the site. Only members who have registered their age as over 18 will be able to access Bingo Friendzy. Yet it is widely acknowledged that the social networking site has almost eight million children under 13 who have profiles and slip under the radar simply by lying about their age by giving a false date of birth. The social networking site has 900 million users.
Facebook has a statutory obligation to prohibit kids under 13 years old because US federal law (The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998) requires companies to obtain parental consent if they want to collect information about those children. How can we trust a company that turns such a blatantly irresponsible ‘blind eye’ to its legal obligations and yet let it loose with gambling in the same environment? I believe we are in danger of sleepwalking into this one. For example, In September 2011, the Federal Trade Commission announced proposed revisions to the COPPA rules, the first significant changes to the Act since its rules were issued in the year 2000. The proposed rule changes expand the definition of what it means to “collect” data from children. The new rules would also present a data retention and deletion requirement, which would mandate that data that is obtained from children is only kept for the amount of time necessary to achieve the purpose that it was collected for. The Act applies to websites and online services operated for commercial purposes that are either directed to children under 13 or have actual knowledge that children under 13 are providing information online. There you have what seems to be a clear breach of the law by Facebook.
The social networking site is aware of “just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services” according to a spokesman, “We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policy makers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment.” Yet with regard to gambling there is no regulatory authority that can stop them because they are operating across several international jurisdictions and none of them are able – as yet – to come up with any reassurance regarding effective regulation of ‘Bingo Friendzy’. It can only be hoped that the European Commission are able to step in and enforce a minimum standard for child protection in terms of gambling advertising..
Add to that the fact that Bingo Friendzy’s visual marketing is of the kind that you see in children’s games, with bright colours and friendly characters, and it brings to mind the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority’s rules on gambling ads, which clearly state that marketing “should not be likely to be of particular appeal to children or young persons, especially by reflecting or being associated with youth culture”. The Ad design appears to be a blatant breach of that, but again the problem is that Gamesys are not based in the United Kingdom. Either by accident, but more likely by design, Gamesys is actually out of reach of the regulatory protection that Facebook is citing to allay concerns.