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Vernon Irvin Headshot

Protecting Children Online

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Whether it is identity theft, online tracking, or profiling, the Internet can be an open door to a child's personal information. A Wall Street Journal investigation into online privacy last year found that popular children's websites install more tracking technologies on personal computers than do the top websites aimed at adults.

According to recent research by Consumer Reports, one million children were harassed, threatened, or subjected to other forms of cyberbullying on Facebook in the past year -- and that's just one social media site. Furthermore, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says 8 percent of the ID theft complaints in 2010 involved children.

Society has an obligation to protect our children and online safety for children should be a priority. We need a three-pronged approach to address this issue: policy changes; industry self-regulation; and more parental tools, monitoring and education.

Current legislation being considered includes proposed amendments to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by the FTC.  COPPA has not been seriously updated since 1998 -- only four years after the first browser was introduced to the marketplace. (That was back when you still needed an antenna on your car for your "car phone" to work.) In May, the Do Not Track Kids bill (H.R. 1895) was introduced by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas); it proposes barring websites outright from using kids' data to target ads to them until they are 17.  Debates continue about the appropriate age cut-off and exactly how this legislation would be enforced.

A recent New York Times editorial, "A Push for Online Privacy," stated that "Despite bipartisan concern about potential abuses, Congress has not acted to protect consumer privacy, and there is little chance legislation will pass anytime soon."

Okay, well if we cannot count on policies to protect our children online anytime soon, how about self-regulation?
The desire to know who, what and where people are at any given point is driven by advertising revenue. The more companies know about a consumer, the more they can target advertising to their buying habits. Until their revenue model changes, what incentive do these companies have to self-regulate? Unless, of course, there is legislation in place, and you see the circular argument.

So it is up to the parents, and as a parent, I can say we are falling short.  The same Consumer Reports research found that 7.5 million American children under the age of 13 were using Facebook, more than 5 million were 10 and under, and their accounts were largely unsupervised by their parents (although Facebook's policy is not to allow children under 13 to use its site).

So we can wait for politicians to step up to build a regulatory framework to protect our children's online privacy and hope that the online industry will check its own greed, or we can take control of protecting our kids today by monitoring our their online use, educating them about online safety, and using the tools available to protect them from being tracked.   

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