Friday, April 25, 2008

FTC Asked to Ban Behavioural Tracking / Data Mining of Children Online

In late December (2007), the FTC released a set of proposed principles to guide self-regulation within the realm of online behavioural advertising and its accompanying market research practices. It then invited the public to comment, receiving input from a variety of sources, including a very well articulated comment/brief submitted by a coalition of child advocacy groups. As reported by KidAdLaw:
The joint comments were filed by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, Benton Foundation, Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, Center for Digital Democracy, Children Now and the Office of Communications of the United Church of Christ.

"[N]ot only do children and adolescents face difficulties understanding and meaningfully consenting to behavioral advertising practices based on their levels of development, they face additional hurdles from the complex and confusing language in privacy policies," the groups stated.

"[W]e believe that all data collected about the online activities of persons under the age of eighteen should be considered sensitive," the groups said. "We ... urge that the Commission's guidelines prohibit the collection of such information."

In reading through the comment document, which you can access here, I was happy to see some discussion of privacy policies and how ineffective these documents are as a "stand in" for informed consent. For example:
In addition to children and adolescents’ difficulties in understanding and consenting to behavioral advertising, online data collection practices are largely invisible because of websites’ complex, technical, and lengthy privacy policies. First, it is not always easy to locate privacy policies. Second, as town hall participants from all interested sectors discussed, many privacy policies are difficult to understand, requiring in some cases a graduate-level degree to read. A 2004 study measured the required reading levels for the top fifty U.S. websites’ privacy policies and found that the average policy required a college education, only three were accessible to persons with a high school degree, and 53 percent were beyond the grasp of 56.6 percent of the internet population. Consumer surveys have made similar findings: only 47 percent of adults say privacy policies are easy to understand and 86 percent believe that laws forcing privacy policies to follow a standard format will effectively protect information. Moreover, because privacy policies often contain vague, ambiguous, or conflicting wording, they may not successfully convey the information that consumers need.

Another absolute gem is the comment brief submitted by the Center for Digital Democracy (run by Jeff Chester) -- a 37 page research document outlining the specifics of how and why advertisers use online tracking and related market research tactics, complete with real life examples such as the Double Fusion/Habbo Hotel partnership. Here's an excerpt:
As Double Fusion explains to potential advertisers, as part of its tracking system it:

"...tracks all aspects of campaigns to provide the full visibility, accountability and optimization required to deliver advertiser return on investment. As the most accountable ad medium, videogame advertising campaigns are tracked and measured at standards above all other media including ad size, view and time. Standard and custom reports are available. Double Fusion also works with advertisers to provide advertising effectiveness studies by going directly to gamers to capture campaign results: brand awareness, recall and rating, likelihood to recommend brand, brand fit within the game, perceived brand characteristics and many other metrics."

What I especially love about this document is how cutting edge its information is...the practices and mechanisms examined include up-to-date examples (always a struggle for researchers and policymakers) such as widgets and social networking, providing an extremely comprehensive vision of how children's relationship with market research continues to be extended and intensified through online applications. Be sure to check out previous reports submitted by the CDD to the FTC, including a filing from last fall on how digital marketing violates youth privacy, and this one from last summer -- written by Katheryn Montgomery -- on digital marketing and youth obesity.

Of course, the majority of the comments submitted came from the industries themselves, and requested that the FTC's principles be relaxed even further. For example, as Mediapost reported last week:
[T]he Association of National Advertisers filed comments with the FTC asking for easier restrictions on all behavioral marketing--regardless of age--saying it could hurt a growing new media platform for marketers.

The comment period ended on April 11, and so now we must all wait and see what this process ultimately produces in terms of regulatory action.


Lisa @ Corporate Babysitter said...

Sara, hope you don't mind, I'm going to link to this post from my next newsletter -- great stuff. Thanks.

Sara M. Grimes said...

I don't mind at all!