Children's Groups Push FTC on Collection of Kids’ Information Online

Children's advocates asked the Federal Trade Commission not to allow marketers to collect information online from children under 18 years old.

That came in comments on the FTC's proposed self-regulatory guidelines for so-called behavioral marketing. As the traditional ad becomes more nontraditional, media companies are increasingly looking to the Web to embed and target their pitches, based on the likes and dislikes of their audience.

The five principles proposed by FTC staffers included reasonable disclosure and security; limits on how long the information can be retained and what it can be used for; and a requirement that any information deemed "sensitive" only be collected with the permission of the user.

In its comments, the Center for Digital Democracy, joined by the American Academy of Pediatrics and veteran kids’ media activists Children Now and the United Church of Christ, told the FTC in comments Friday that they were generally supportive of the principles, with the caveat that children’s information be found to be de facto "sensitive" and further that marketers be prohibited entirely from collecting that information from kids.

They argued that kids are more susceptible to such ads, are less able to distinguish between ads and other information and that kids do not "meaningfully" consent to such advertising and can't be expected to figure out privacy policies that are hard enough for adults to understand.

The groups want the FTC to: adopt the guidelines with the "sensitive data" exclusion for kids under 18; monitor industry compliance and put more teeth in the exclusion, if needed; and require express consent from parents when advertisers collect any information from kids in order to target them with advertising.

The Center for Digital Democracy, headed by Jeff Chester, has been a lead group in pushing the FTC to take a hard and critical look at behavioral marketing as more old-line media companies get into the new online space. He argued that it could well be the next media-consolidation battleground.

Of the filing Friday, Chester told B&C: "This filing is to help the FTC recognize that they must ensure that children’s and adolescents' privacy is protected in the age of Facebook and MySpace. The commission still has a late-1990s understanding of online marketing. Children and teens in the United States have been left vulnerable to manipulation because of the failure of the FTC to act in a meaningful way."

House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) agreed that the FTC needed to make its presence felt.

“The FTC has appropriately recognized the pressing need for updated online privacy protections for children that reflect the sophisticated data collection and behavioral targeting practices now used widely across the Internet," Markey said Friday in a statement on the proposed guidelines. "Without stronger protections, including a prohibition on collecting data on children’s and teens’ online activities, young Internet users may become unwitting targets of the ‘hidden persuaders’ of the digital age." He promised to keep an eye on the proceedings.

".  I look forward to monitoring the FTC’s work in this important area," he said. 

Advertising groups filed earlier this week asking for a light regulatory hand.

Note: B&C is owned by Reed Elsevier, which is active in lobbying on marketing-practices issues and regulations.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.