The trickiness of tracking children online


By Russ Van Arsdale, Executive director, Northeast CONTACT

Posted Sept. 25, 2011, at 3:16 p.m.

When it comes to online selling, big business and America’s parents may not be on the same page.

Business is concerned with, well, business. And parents are concerned with their children’s well-being, including the marketing techniques used on young people.

Congress was concerned with such things when it passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, in 1998. As with many bills that pass the House and Senate, some provisions of COPPA had “the force of law” more in name than in fact.

The Federal Trade Commission was charged with enforcing the law. In writing rules effective in 2000, the FTC said anyone who collects information from children younger than age 13 must “obtain verifiable consent from parents before collecting, using, or disclosing such information.” That meant through offline methods, such as a written or faxed letter.

Merging that hard copy into their digital world proved too labor intensive for most cyber businesses, so many website operators just banned preteens from registering. And that ban worked about as well as warning young people not to engage in a variety of risky behaviors that have beckoned youths over the decades.

The kids simply lied about their ages and accessed the websites. In the process, they opened themselves up as a new market for online enterprise.

Rule writers at the FTC are doing what they can to spell out changes that, in a perfect world, would protect children from becoming targets. They recognize the ever-increasing array of electronic devices available, and the fact that in using them, children are often “tech savvy but judgment poor.”

The proposed rules would change the ways parents can sign off on their children’s use of technology. If a child’s personal information is disclosed to a service provider or a third party, those receiving the information must safeguard it, use it only as long as necessary and then delete it. The rules don’t say exactly how, but stipulate the practices be “reasonable.”

What’s “reasonable” to many online businesses is that they write most of the rules themselves. Cyber businesses are spending huge sums to figure out not only what triggers a final sale, but also the steps that lead up to that final sale. Google recently launched “multichannel funnels,” which allow advertisers to track consumers’ site visits for 30 days. The goal is to figure out why people buy when they do, and the payoff could be huge.

Some consumer groups are praising the FTC’s proposed rule, but others say it amounts to a bandage on a leaking dam. In the Online Journalism Review, blogger Robert Niles argues that a generation of young web users routinely chat, text, tweet and friend their way through the ether without obeying rules or fearing consequences.

Niles writes, “If we want to protect preteens’ identity online — and I believe that we should — our laws should focus on that, instead of creating parental consent procedures so burdensome that they force publishers into the impossible task of trying to keep kids offline.”

Niles calls on Congress to go beyond the FTC’s patch-up approach and rewrite COPPA. Defenders of COPPA and the FTC say at least children have some protection from the tracking that targets most everyone over age 13.

Federal lawmakers and regulators might perform a true public service by starting a dialogue on making online communication with young people positive, meaningful and rule-abiding. We would urge business people to engage in that discussion as well. You can comment on the new rule at

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to http://, or email


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