Submission Number: 00044
Received: 11/27/2011 11:24:01 PM
Commenter: Mark Andrejevic
Organization: University of Iowa
Agency: Federal Trade Commission
Initiative: 16 CFR Part 312; Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule Review; Project No. P104503
Attachments: No Attachments
COPPA Rule Review, 16 CFR Part 312, Project No. P-104503
Thank you for the opportunity to comment: I am an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Iowa, where I study the collection and use of personal information by commercial entities. I have written numerous journal articles and a book on the topic.
I am writing largely in response to comments that I know you are receiving from a research group headed by danah boyd and financed by Microsoft. Having seen what the lead author is arguing in public about the study’s findings, I felt it was worth qualifying them. The authors’ see their research as a challenge to public support for age-related restrictions on the tracking of children (collection of information about their online activities), but this is refuted by their own findings. It is telling, and perhaps testimony to how this study was funded (and expedited through peer review, presumably in order to influence these hearings) that the authors frame their key finding in this regard as follows: “Even when the focus is on data collection, parents are not uniformly in favor of restrictions on what information social network sites can collect about children. While 57 percent would prefer restrictions, even if it means that children in general will be banned from social network sites, 43 percent think that parents should get to choose, even if it means that these sites and services can collect data” (see: http://bit.ly/ParentSurveyCOPPA. ). A more accurate way of framing this finding would be to note that a majority of parents favor restrictions on what information social network sites can collect about their children, even if that means children will be banned from such sites. While COPPA may well need to be reformed, it is worth bearing in mind that (unsurprisingly) the general public support age- related restrictions on tracking and advertising.
This finding should be situated in the larger context of the low level of public awareness regarding the breadth and depth of the collection of personal information online. Scholars including Joe Turow and Chris Hoofnagle have revealed that most people do not realize they are being tracked online and do not support tracking for commercial purposes (see: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1478214).
Finally it is worth qualifying the findings in the Microsoft-funded study by noting that, by the researchers’ own admission, participants were so ill-informed about fast-changing practices of data collection and data mining that they did not have a clear idea of the consequences of these practices. In an online public discussion of the study, danah boyd notes that: "Adults are clueless about tracking. Chris Hoofnagle's work showed this. And we couldn't even run measures on what parents knew because their basic literacy was so low. They simply don't understand how targeted marketing works let alone how data is shared, sold, or used" (https://lists.thing.net/pipermail/idc/2011-November/004877.html).
Surely there is a problem with a law that encourages parents to help their children lie in order to gain access to social networking sites. There is also a problem with the way this law is interpreted, allowing Web sites to simply ask for a birthday, rather than for some form of age verification to ensure that people who join are 13 or over.
These problems do not mean that all age-related restrictions on tracking should be scrapped. Boyd et al.’s own findings reveal that most parents do not want to live in a world in which companies can surreptitiously gather detailed information about what their children are doing online in order to be able to advertise to them in more powerfully manipulative ways. Finally, it is worth recalling that a standard anti-regulatory strategy of powerful corporations is to argue that if a regulation has flaws it should be scrapped entirely. The study in question seems to enlist this strategy