Skip to content

New Research Reveals Widespread Tracking and Behavioral Targeting on Children’s Websites

January 4, 2012

GRIID is reposting this story as an example of why it is important for parents and communities in general to understand how advertisers and other corporations target children. This article is re-posted from the Center for Digital Democracy.

In comments filed today with the Federal Trade Commission, the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), along with sixteen consumer, health, privacy, and child advocacy groups, endorsed the Commission’s proposals to update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) rules.

The groups supported the agency’s recommendations for critical changes in its regulations aimed at addressing contemporary data collection and marketing practices.  CDD also released an analysis of tracking and targeting techniques employed by the leading child-targeted websites, which found that the great majority of the sites (81%) engage in some form of tracking through the use of such “persistent identifiers” as flash cookies, web bugs, and other online data collection tools.  Nearly half of the sites (48%) appear to be using behavioral targeting technologies.

Behavioral targeting is becoming a pervasive practice across the web.  The practice is based on building profiles of individual users by tracking behaviors on one or more websites and combining that data with information from a variety of other sources (e.g., IP addresses, search history, registration, etc.) in order to deliver marketing or advertising to an individual online.

“The online data collection practices we originally identified in the 1990s have been eclipsed by a new generation of tracking and targeting techniques, as online data collection in this era of Big Data,” commented Kathryn Montgomery, Professor of Communication at American University, who, along with CDD Executive Director, Jeff Chester, spearheaded the campaign to pass COPPA in 1998. “It is imperative that the rules be changed if they are going to continue protecting children’s privacy in the growing digital marketplace.”

“Given children’s limited cognitive abilities and the sophisticated nature of contemporary digital marketing and data collection, strong arguments can be made that behavioral targeting is an inappropriate, unfair, and deceptive practice when used to influence children under 13,” the groups explained in their comments.  “At the very least, marketers should be constrained from engaging in such practices without obtaining meaningful, prior consent from parents.”

However, as the comments point out, children’s websites are fully engaged in these new forms of individualized targeting, but are not adequately informing parents of the practices.  A separate analysis of the privacy policies on the top children’s websites, commissioned by CDD, found that many of the websites fail to provide accurate, clear, and complete information that parents need to make informed decisions.  Most of the policies do not adhere to COPPA requirements for user-friendly explanations, but instead couch their practices in obscure, difficult to understand legalese.   As a consequence, parents have no way of knowing or understanding the nature and extent of data collection and use on these sites.

“These findings demonstrate that children’s privacy is not being taken seriously by many of the leading U.S. online content providers targeted at young people,” commented Jeff Chester.

The comments were filed in response to the FTC’s notice of proposed amendments to the COPPA rule, issued in September of this year.   The groups supported most of the Commission’s proposals, underscoring several of particular importance and urgency, including:

•  Expanding the definition of “Personal Information” to include such data as screen and user names; persistent identifiers associated with cookies and similar technologies; photographs, videos, and audio files uploaded by users.

•  Ensuring COPPA’s privacy protections cover the expanding array of digital platforms, including mobile devices, geo-location-based services, and Internet-connected games.

•  Revising the “Notice” requirements in order to improve transparency of data collection and marketing and ensure that parents can access user-friendly information about a company’s privacy policies in order to make informed decisions about their children’s privacy.

“COPPA’s flexible language was designed to ensure it would cover emerging technology and software applications as the digital landscape continued to grow,” explained Angela Campbell, Professor at the Institute of Public Representation at Georgetown Law, and lead attorney filing comments on behalf of the groups. “The FTC’s proposed safeguards on location and mobile information are especially timely, given the dramatic increase in children’s use of these devices.”

The Center for Digital Democracy is a nonprofit group working to educate the public about the impact of digital marketing on public health, consumer protection, and privacy. It has played a leading role at the FTC and in Congress to help promote the development of policy safeguards for behavioral targeting and other online data collection practices.

The comments were prepared by the Institute for Public Representation, a public interest law firm and clinical education program at Georgetown Law.

The following organizations also signed on to the filing:  American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Pediatrics, Benton Foundation, Berkeley Media Studies Group/Public Health Institute, Center for Commercial-Free Childhood, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Children Now, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, Praxis Project, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law, Public Health Law and Policy, Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, and World Privacy Forum.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: