Taylor Vanderhelm is a JD candidate at the University of Alberta
Online tracking of children has become an increasingly hot topic as concerned parents and privacy advocates push for greater protection of children’s online information, particularly amid revelations that popular kids’ sites install 30% more tracking tools than those targeting adults and Disney’s $3 million settlement over children’s online privacy.
Increasing concern on the issue has resulted in Edward J. Markey (Democratic Representative of Massachusetts) and Joe Barton (Republican Representative of Texas) releasing a draft of the Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011, which in its current form goes far beyond current federal requirements.
The bill’s stated goal is “[t]o amend the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act [COPPA] of 1998 to extend, enhance, and revise the provisions relating to collection, use, and disclosure of personal information of children and to establish certain other protections for personal information of children and minors.” Currently, websites targeting children under the age of 13 are only required to obtain parental permission before collecting personal information. It should be noted that this bill is different from the Do Not Track bill proposed by Senator Jay Rockefeller (Democratic Representative of West Virginia) which seeks to allow all users the option of opting out of being tracked through their web browser. This functionality is already available through browsers by Google, Mozilla, Apple, and Microsoft.
Some of the key proposals of the bill are to limit companies from sharing non-core (e.g. site functionality) information with third parties, update COPPA to address new technology and call on the Federal Trade Commission to update COPPA rules. The bill also provides for the creation of a controversial “Eraser Button” which would call for the removal of all of the child’s information to the extent that is technologically feasible.
While there are arguments both for and against the development of an “Eraser Button,” there are still significant questions regarding the practicality of such a provision given the sheer volume of data and difficulty in controlling information once it becomes public.
The growing influence of social networks has also contributed to the debate as a recent Pew Research Center Study found 46% of 12 year olds and 62% of 13 year olds use social network sites. Many of the sites, such as Facebook, prohibit children under 13 from using their services but have difficulty adequately enforcing the policy as they rely on information provided by the user. Facebook in particular has drawn attention after a Consumer Reports study revealed that the social network has approximately 7.5 million users under the age of 13 and 5 million users 10 and under.
There is no easy solution to the regulation of social networks as an interview with the director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, David Vladeck, illustrates. California is also considering its own bill to restrict how social networks handle the personal information of those under the age of 18. The bill would set baseline requirements for privacy settings, make privacy settings available at signup, and allow parents to have their children’s information removed within 48 hours.
Despite much support from consumer privacy groups, there has been significant concern and resistance from internet companies who claim it will seriously harm their ability to operate their business. It remains to be seen how such bills will evolve in order to strike a balance between effectively protecting children without unnecessarily damaging the ability of internet companies to do business.