The New York Times reports that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has broadened its rules on online data collection on children to better accommodate new portable technologies such as cell phones and tablets. Generally, online sites must obtain permission from parents before collecting information about their children. Existing regulations already require parental consent before information that can be used to “identify, locate or contact” a child–e.g., a photo or video–can be collected. A significant addition in the new regulation, however, is that “persistent identification systems”–tools such a cookies that do not reveal the specific identity of a visitor but tracks visits by the same person across time–are now covered as identifying information. Since online advertising is often based on prior activity–e.g., an individualized advertisement in an online article for a product for which a person has searched on a site such as Staples.com–is a rapidly growing area, this is a major limitation.
The protection and privacy of children are clearly important and the potential loss of some online content for children that it may no longer be cost effective to provide may be warranted. An interesting question, however, is the extent to which children under thirteen who sign up for online accounts actually answer truthfully when asked about age. There are also questions about children on both sides of this age limit. Are safeguards that might be adequate for children aged 11-13, for example, sufficient for those under 10, an increasing number of whom by now have smartphones? Further, although children over thirteen may be better able to make judgments about their own more theoretical privacy protection, does this age cutoff send the message about the types of content and offers that might be sent those over thirteen who are subject to extensive protection and close supervision in other parts of their lives such as school and extra-curricular programs?
Is this type of regulation merely a “feel good” measure or does it offer significant practical protection for children? The answer is not clear.