Survey: Adults Want to Protect Kids From Online Ad Tracking

Study Finds Widespread Support for Parental Permission for Ad Tracking of Children's Online Activity

Adults overwhelmingly oppose advertisers tracking the online activities of kids under 13 or collection of their personal information, and at a minimum want those advertisers to get the parents' permission first.

That is according to Princeton Survey Research findings released by Common Sense Media and the Center for Digital Democracy on Thursday.

The groups say the findings demonstrate support for the basic principles of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The Federal Trade Commission is preparing to revamp its enforcement of that law with new protections for kids' information in the digital age (see below).

Those findings include that 1) 86% disagree with the statement that it is OK for a website to ask kids for personal info about their friends; 2) 70% strongly disagree that it is OK for advertisers to track kids' online behavior if they provide free content in exchange; 3) 82% strongly disagree with the statement that it is OK for advertisers to collect information from children's mobile phones; and 4) 82% strongly agree that advertisers should get parents' permission to put tracking software on a child's computer.

"It is clear from these findings that the public supports strong action by the FTC to address the disturbing and widespread practices that threaten the privacy and safety of our nation's children," said Kathryn Montgomery, American University professor of communication and one of the driving forces behind passage COPPA's passage.

"The findings revealed strong support not only for the basic principles of the law, but also for several key proposed changes in the rules that would address a range of online business practices -- including mobile marketing and behavioral profiling -- that have emerged since the COPPA took effect more than a decade ago," the groups said in releasing the study. "The Federal Trade Commission is expected to announce a number of updates to the COPPA regulations in the coming weeks."

The survey was of 2,002 adults in a representative sample of residents of the continental U.S. The study was a phone poll conducted Nov. 8 to Nov. 18. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

The FTC reviewed COPPA in 2005 and made no changes, but this time around has plenty of new proposals given the explosion of digital media and child-targeted Web sites since the bill was passed in 1998. Those proposed changes include:

"[U]pdating the definition of 'personal information' to include geolocation information and certain types of persistent identifiers used for functions other than the website's internal operations, such as tracking cookies used for behavioral advertising. In addition, the Commission proposes modifying the definition of 'collection' so operators may allow children to participate in interactive communities, without parental consent, so long as the operators take reasonable measures to delete all or virtually all children's personal information before it is made public.

"[S]eeking to streamline and clarify the direct notice that operators must give parents prior to collecting children's personal information. The proposed revisions are intended to ensure that key information will be presented to parents in a succinct 'just-in-time' notice, and not just in a privacy policy.

"[A]dding new methods to obtain verifiable parental consent, including electronic scans of signed parental consent forms, video-conferencing, and use of government-issued identification checked against a database.

"[S]trengthening the Rule's current confidentiality and security requirements.

"[S]trengthening its oversight of self-regulatory safe harbor programs' by requiring them to audit their members at least annually and report periodically to the Commission the results of those audits."

In a joint filing in response to those proposals, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and Motion Picture Association of America said the current rules already strike the right balance and that some of the new changes "would significantly extend the reach and the burdens of the COPPA regulatory regime" without a corresponding benefit and, in fact, with a corresponding adverse impact on the quality and viability of age-appropriate children's content.

"The industry argues that updates to COPPA will stifle innovation and cost jobs, when in fact, they should respect the role of parents and use it build consumer trust," said James Steyer, Common Sense Media CEO in announcing the study. "The FTC's recommended updates to COPPA represent the most important regulation of the past 10 years when it comes to protecting our kids' privacy."