Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg looks set for a head-on collision with US lawmakers and child safety campaigners, after the billionaire whizz kid announced he'd like under-13s to be able to join his social networking site.
Under-13s are currently prevented from joining Zuckerberg's online glee club by a piece of US federal legislation called COPPA - the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act - which dictates that children under 13 are not allowed to join any online service that collects confidential information about its users.
Many children already circumvent Facebook's age restriction, either by lying about their age or getting their parents to sign up for an account on their behalf. A US Senate committee last week heard that an estimated 7.5 million children under 12 currently operate Facebook accounts - but Zuckerberg wants to see an end to the age restriction altogether.
The Facebook CEO told an audience at the NewSchools Summit in California last week that early web experiences were necessary for a child's online education - and that the sooner that tuition starts, the better.
"My philosophy is that for education, you need to start at a really, really young age," Zuckerberg said. "Because of the restrictions, we haven't even begun this learning process... If they're lifted, then we'd start to learn what works. We'd take a lot of precautions to make sure that [children] are safe."
Quite what children will 'learn' from social notworking sites like Facebook is beyond us. How to waste valuable time tending virtual crops in Farmville? A few choice expressions they're unlikely to find in the dictionary? The identity of the Premiership footballer suing Twitter over allegations of an affair with former Big Brother sleb Imogen Thomas?
Whatever the 'educational' benefits of earlier access to Facebook, the potential dangers are huge. UK police child protection unit CEOP reported that more than 200 children had alerted staff to "suspicious activity" in the first month after the agency introduced a 'panic button' to protect teenage Facebook users against grooming activities by paedophiles.
Facebook today announced that it is implementing PhotoDNA, an image recognition technology developed in 2009 by Microsoft, to weed out images of child abuse posted on the 500 million-strong social network. But for many legislators, such moves may not be enough.
Last week, the US Senate Commerce Committee chairman, John Rockefeller, complained that Facebook and other technology companies weren't doing enough to protect their users' privacy.
Rockefeller accused founder Zuckerberg of putting profits ahead of user safety by sharing information by default and relying on users to 'opt into' privacy measures - something that could change if draft legislation proposed by former presidential hopefuls John Kerry and John McCain becomes law.
Elsewhere, a new bill entitled SB 242 could give parents in California sweeping control over their offspring's Facebook accounts. The Social Networking Privacy Act proposes that privacy levels are set to the maximum by default on all children's accounts - but would give parents the right to make content removal requests to website owners. Sites that fail to comply find themselves slapped with fines of up to $10,000 per infringement.
Whether or not exposure to social networks is healthy or even desirable at a tender age, it's clear that young people require protection online. But measures such as SB 242 seem likely to drive under-age use of social networks still further underground, with children registering false accounts without their parents' knowledge or protection. What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.