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May 01, 2013

Protecting Children's Privacy Online: The Battle Continues

by Kathryn C. Montgomery

During the heady days of the dot-com boom in the 1990s, the emergence of the World Wide Web ushered in a host of online marketing and data collection practices that raised fundamental privacy concerns for children. The business model of one-to-one marketing, combined with the increasing value of children as a target market for advertisers, created a perfect storm for marketers who wanted to use the Internet to reach young people. Numerous websites offered prizes and other incentives to encourage children to supply personal information. A site set up to promote the movie Batman, for example, encouraged children to “be good citizens of Gotham” and fill out the “census.”

Alarmed by these practices, a coalition of education, health, and consumer groups brought pressure on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Congress to establish safeguards for protecting children from marketing and privacy abuses in the rapidly expanding digital marketplace, basing their arguments on a longstanding body of research documenting children’s vulnerabilities to the persuasive techniques of advertisers. The 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) established an important regulatory framework for commercial practices on children’s websites, a set of “rules of the road,” in effect, to guide the development of the children’s digital marketplace. As a result, operators of child-oriented websites were prevented from soliciting information from children without notifying and seeking permission from their parents in advance. Overall, COPPA safeguards helped create a safer and more responsible online environment for children. Kathryn C. Montgomery, Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet 67–106 (MIT Press, 2007).

Congress intended COPPA’s basic framework to be flexible, anticipating the continued growth of digital media and requiring the FTC to update its rules in order to ensure that the law’s implementation would cover new data collection and marketing practices. The practices originally identified in the 1990s have been eclipsed by a new generation of tracking and targeting techniques, as online data collection has entered a new era. In response to these trends, the FTC recently conducted a comprehensive review of COPPA, involving a wide spectrum of stakeholders from industry and civil society. Revised rules were issued in December 2012 (to take effect in July 2013), including an expanded definition of “personal information” that now encompasses “cookies” and other “persistent identifiers,” as well as location, photos, and videos. FTC Strengthens Kids’ Privacy, Gives Parents Greater Control over Their Information by Amending Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, Fed. Trade Comm’n (Dec. 19, 2012), These new rules should help ensure that safeguards established at the outset of the digital age will continue to be effective as the digital marketplace becomes an even greater presence in children’s lives.

However, while COPPA has established an important framework for safeguarding our youngest consumers in the digital marketplace, adolescents still have no such protections. Teenagers are particularly enthusiastic participants in social media platforms, which provide a user-friendly template for exploring their identities; sharing their favorite photos, music, and videos; and interacting with their friends. Kaveri Subrahmanyam & Patricia M. Greenfield, Virtual Worlds in Development: Implications of Social Networking Sites, 29 J. Applied Developmental Psychol. 417 (2008). But as young people integrate these new tools into their personal and social lives, they remain largely unaware of the subtle, often covert ways that digital media make it possible for companies to track, profile, and target them. Even when social networks provide mechanisms for setting one’s individual privacy preferences, such settings may create a false sense of security for members, who are not aware of the myriad ways that marketers can still follow their behaviors, compile detailed profiles, and engage in behavioral targeting.

Without question, digital media play a critically important role in the positive development of young people. The goal of any public policy on teen privacy should be to balance the ability of young people to participate fully in the digital media culture—as producers, consumers, and citizens—with the government’s and industry’s obligation to ensure that youth are not subjected to unfair and deceptive surveillance, data collection, or behavioral profiling. Policies should also be designed to ensure that young people are socialized to be responsible consumers in the growing digital marketplace and to understand their rights. The onus of responsibility should not be placed on youth alone to protect themselves, but also on the companies that market to them.

Kathryn C. Montgomery

Kathryn C. Montgomery, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Communication at American University and author of Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet (MIT Press, 2007).