Groups ask regulators to stop the online tracking of children

A coalition of public interest groups and privacy advocates has endorsed a proposal from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that would protect children from unauthorized tracking online.

The groups, including the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), the Benton Foundation and World Privacy Forum, support the agency's recommended updates to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) aimed at curbing the use of cookies and other tracking mechanisms in sites targeted at children.

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“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 said in comments on Friday.

“At the very least, marketers should be constrained from engaging in such practices without obtaining meaningful, prior consent from parents.”

CDD released an analysis showing that 81 percent of the leading child-focused websites use some form of tracking through persistent identifiers, and almost half use behavioral targeting for advertising purposes.

A separate analysis commissioned by CDD found many of the sites fail to provide clear and complete information for parents on how they collect and use information about child users.

“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,” said CDD Executive Director Jeff Chester.

“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,” added Kathryn Montgomery, communications professor at American University. “It is imperative that the rules be changed if they are going to continue protecting children’s privacy in the growing digital marketplace.”

The FTC's proposed changes appear to have support in Congress and are likely to come up for discussion when Congress considers consumer privacy legislation next year.