Do not track kids’ online activities

In the ever-changing 21st century digital landscape, there is one constant truth: the youth shall inherit the Web. On any given day, children and teenagers go online to complete homework, connect with friends and family and enjoy entertainment opportunities. The Internet can be a child’s virtual playground, an electronic oasis that offers a rich array of resources for learning and fun activities. But like all landscapes, there are risks and dangers. 

It is important for children and teens to have a way to communicate, create and connect with their peers. But what happens when what our children say or do online ends up in unintended hands? What happens when records of our kids’ activities and opinions are collected by third parties to use for any number of undisclosed purposes? What happens when this information can be accessed once a child has grown up? What could happen is a major breach of personal privacy.

Consider a 21-year-old who is denied a job based on a photo she posted when she was just 14. Or the 17-year-old who is denied admission to college because of something he said or did online when he was just 11. Or the 12-year-old girl who wants to lose weight searching online for diet information, who then, because of this one search, sees weight-loss ads every time she goes online because the ad network formed a profile that categorized her as a “young female interested in weight loss.” 

What kids say or do online should not continue to haunt them months or years later. 

The rapid pace of online progress makes it challenging to keep up and fully understand the impact of what is happening on what can sometimes feel like the wild, wild Web. In the past year alone, a disturbing number of companies have been found to access or use consumers’ personal information without their knowledge or consent.

One of the protections that has been a part of the digital landscape is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). 

Since the passage of COPPA more than a decade ago, children now are just as likely to be poked, liked and friended online as in the schoolyard. Back then, we used cellphones to make calls — not tweet, text or try out the latest apps. 

Today, with mobile devices as ubiquitous as lunch boxes, the digital revolution now is in the hands of our kids. This brave new world has forever revolutionized childhood. Kids today constantly broadcast their preferences, actions and creations online. That also means that everything they post or text or broadcast can be searched, copied, pasted, distributed, collected and viewed by vast, invisible audiences. Children might not realize this, but advertisers do. And increasingly, so do parents. 

Now is the time to pass legislation to protect kids and prevent them from being tracked online. 

In May, we introduced the “Do Not Track Kids Act.” It is time to give parents and families the tools to protect our children’s privacy before their actions create permanent records that anyone can use and sell for a profit. The Do Not Track Kids Act strengthens online safeguards for children and teens and updates COPPA for the 21st century. 

Our bill, which is supported by a large coalition, including the National PTA, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Commonsense Media, has 29 co-sponsors from both political parties. It prohibits Internet companies from sending targeted advertising to children and teens and collecting personal and location information without parental or individual consent. The legislation also would require website operators to have an “eraser button” capability that enables the deletion or elimination of information about children and teens. 

Protecting our kids’ privacy should be a top priority for the industry and for lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Industry leaders must acknowledge the importance of ensuring online privacy and make it easier for parents and kids to protect themselves. 

They should use some of their ingenuity for privacy protection, not simply for profit. Parents and teachers also must be active parts of the solution. 

This isn’t about Big Brother — it’s about Big Mother and Big Father. As a nation, it is imperative that we come together to make the protection of children’s privacy a top priority and pass children’s privacy legislation this year. 

Markey and Barton are members of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Communications and Technology.