Websites accused of collecting kids’ online data

Molly Wood Aug 23, 2012

Websites accused of collecting kids’ online data

Molly Wood Aug 23, 2012

A group of consumer advocate organizations has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that several companies, including McDonald’s and General Mills, are violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

Ryan Calo is an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law. In terms of the allegations, he says, “Basically the idea is that a kid goes onto the website, is playing a fun game, then is prompted hey, why don’t you email any of your friends that might want to get here, and so the idea is to drive traffic to the website.”

The question is whether or not that email swapping is OK. Says Calo: “The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act has an exception for one-time uses of email, but really only to respond to a request from the kid. In other words, it’s OK if a kid writes to you and asks you a question about your website, you can write back to them of course and therefore, you’re using information, but there is no exception for having a kid write to another kid.”

Calo says it’s also not clear what happens to these email addresses afterwards. “Maybe they’re throwing it away, but even so, the idea that you’re enlisting a child, maybe even a child under the age of 13, to advertise their website, that’s something that at least has to be looked at, does raise some red flags there.”

So how do kids think about online privacy? danah boyd is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research. She says, “So when they think about privacy, they’re trying to navigate it when thinking about their parents, their teachers, college admission officers, etc. And in many ways, they’re not thinking about the government, corporations.”

So they’re not worried about cookies and tracking and things like that. They’re worried about whether mom or dad are going to get mad about who they’re talking to. Says boyd: “For better or for worse, most Internet users — adults or children — have no understanding of how data is used for commercial purposes, young people are not any different from adults in this way. So, they’re not thinking about it because they don’t know what it means, and the same holds for adults. The big challenge for all of us is to really question in an era of big data, what kind of privacy restrictions or tools do we need out there not just to protect young people’s data, but to protect all of our data.”

The feds are considering an update to the childrens’ online privacy rules. But there are no over-arching standards in place to protect the rest of us.

A new study by the Online Publishers Association has found the one thing we all love to do with our smartphones; and no, it’s not watching pet videos.

We’ve got Bob Dylan here to give us a little clue:

Bob Dylan: The answer my friend is blowing in the wind. the answer is blowing in the wind.

Nice hint Bob! The number one most popular activity for people on their smartphones is checking the weather.

I guess that makes sense, you know, you check your phone, see if there’s any bad weather, you would warn people.

Dylan: Come in, she said, I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.

Exactly, help a guy out. But, Bob, don’t you think it’s funny that we spend so much time checking out the weather on smartphones. With all the things they can do – hundreds of thousands of apps to choose from?

Dylan: You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

You mean you don’t need a smartphone to know which way the wind blows? Right?

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.