Tracking Children Online

April 15, 2008

Teens are among the most active Internet users and the most sought-after by advertisers. But they are also the least informed about how to stop their personal activity from being tracked online.

A coalition of medical groups and child advocates called last week for guidelines that would prevent Internet companies from tracking the behavior of minors online.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) were among those asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to encourage the Internet industry to stop profiling young internet users by monitoring the sites they visit and the interests they list on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.

Says the AAP and APA, the FTC should step in when interactive ad systems gather sensitive information from minors. The actions were a response to an agency proposal for voluntary guidelines on a form of online advertising known as behavioral targeting, a market anticipated to be worth billions of dollars.

"New ad networks appear to be using… traffic data for behavioral advertising without proper safeguards or user consent," says the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT). "No regulation or self-regulation exists to address the privacy implications of this new model."

The medical groups said teens were unsurprisingly among the most active Internet users and were the most sought-after by advertisers. But the groups also said teens were the least likely to understand how to stop their personal activity from being tracked. According to a 2003 study cited by the groups, teens are not alone in their thinking; even most adults inaccurately believe that the presence of a privacy policy on a website means that their activity won't be tracked and distributed.

"Is it reasonable that a 14 year-old can understand and consent to a complicated legal contract? That is essentially what a privacy policy is," says Corie Wright, a lawyer for Georgetown University Law Center's Institute for Public Representation, which filed the comments for the medical groups.

The Network Advertising Initiative, whose supporters include Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc. and AOL, says it also was considering barring use of some medical information when those data are tied to personal identifiers.

But a filing from the Center for Digital Democracy and US PIRG called self-regulation a failure, saying not everyone in the industry would participate. The groups also note that given the proposed acquisition of Yahoo by Microsoft, the consolidation of control over user data may very well provide a structure for the online market in ways that we cannot even predict.