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Do Not Track Kids -- Privacy Versus Profits

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America is a nation of innovators. We dream and we create. And inevitably the world changes -- mostly for the good. We want to encourage economic growth, but too often, our children become the collateral damage in the rush to profit. Today, at a time of bewildering technological change, it's urgent that we turn our attention to safeguarding our kids in an increasingly digital world. Not from predators (or at least not the traditional kind) but from the onslaught of information our kids offer up and are bombarded with as a result of their 24/7 online and mobile use. It's time to protect our kids' privacy before their actions create permanent records that anyone can exploit -- and protect them from marketers who want to use their personal information to sell them myriad products all day, every day.

Playing catch-up with protections for kids and families is not new. Take the enormous change wrought by the automobile. When driving became popular, Americans ultimately realized that we needed some protections -- and seatbelts were introduced. Television was another total game changer. As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, families across the nation gathered around the screen where they watched everything from cowboy shows to an endless parade of advertising. The nutrient value of TV shows dropped so precipitously that in 1961, then Federal Communication Chairman Newton Minow declared television "a vast wasteland." Still, it took nearly 30 years until the Children's Television Act was passed, mandating at least some educational TV offerings and limiting direct selling to kids by TV advertisers.

The last time we enacted online protections for children was in 1998 when Congress passed the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. That literally feels like centuries ago. There was no YouTube. No Facebook or MySpace or Twitter. No geolocation applications that let kids announce to their friends (and marketers) where they are. And unlike other innovation revolutions, the control over this one rests squarely in the hands of our kids. Young people are way ahead of their parents and teachers in this digital media universe. Yet as any parent knows, most kids rarely think about the implications of their actions when they post something online or text personal information. Kids may not recognize these implications, but advertisers certainly do. The Wall Street Journal recently found that 50 sites popular with U.S. teens and children placed 4,123 "cookies," "beacons" and other pieces of tracking technology on their sites -- 30% more than were found in an analysis of the 50 most popular U.S. sites overall, which are generally aimed at adults.

Today, kids are growing up in public in what the tech industry has established as an "opt-out culture." No 13-year-old can read a befuddling privacy policy and make sense of it. Neither can most parents. I'm the head of the leading kids and media non-profit in the U.S. a father of four, and a lawyer, and even I'm baffled by these obfuscating policies. And so our kids do what we do -- check the "accept" box and sign away their personal information and their privacy rights. Online profiles, downloaded apps, text messages, and posted photos make personal information available where lots of people can use it -- including friends and family, but also marketers, scam artists, and worse. And as we all know from a series of tragic events, once information goes online, it's incredibly difficult to remove.

It is a critical national imperative that we raise a generation of digitally literate kids who understand how to protect their privacy in this public world. That's also why it's so important for parents and teachers to guide their children through the tricky minefield of online privacy, and help kids think about how the information they share today may be used tomorrow.

Yet families and schools cannot be the only line of defense. Protecting our kids' privacy will require strong and enlightened leadership from national policymakers as well as major changes, profit concessions and a new sense of commitment to the public interest from key industry stakeholders. Industry leaders must start by acknowledging the enormity of the privacy issue and make it far easier for parents and kids to protect themselves. They need to use some of their extraordinary technology and innovative minds for protecting and educating our kids, and not simply for profit.

Equally as important, policymakers from the White House on down have to get off the sidelines and update old policies to reflect today's drastically different technologies. For example, there should be a national "Do Not Track Kids" policy, similar to the widely used Do Not Call policy, and there should be regulations mandating no geolocation services for kids without a formal parental opt-in. Kids and families should not have to "opt out" of something in order to protect their privacy. Period.

Protecting the futures of our children has always been a priority in this country. As Americans living in an era of rapid technological innovation, all of us have an enormous stake in protecting our kids' privacy and giving them the childhood and future they deserve.

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