The EU Must Ensure Data Protection & Digital Marketing Safeguards for both Children & Adolescents (and that includes you too, UK!)

Jeff Chester

This blog entry by Jeff Chester originally appeared on the Media Policy Blog of the London School of Economics and Political Science here.

Influencers (link is external), native advertising (link is external), programmatic targeting (link is external), predictive algorithms (link is external), cross-device identification (link is external), immersive advertising (link is external), hyper-geolocation tracking (link is external), Big Data—all of these terms are part of the lexicon that is at the foundation of our digital lives. Led by Google and Facebook, but embedded deeply throughout the EU and the rest of the world, is a pervasive and far-reaching commercial surveillance complex.

The potent and purposeful combination of contemporary consumer data gathering and analytic practices (link is external)—so called “Big Data”—with an ever-growing array of digital marketing practices, has been deployed globally to monitor, analyze, and influence our behaviors. The very digital devices and services we rely on—and which marketers openly claim we are often “addicted” (link is external) to—have been expressly designed to facilitate continuous data collection on all “screens (link is external),” including desktop computers (link is external), mobile (link is external) devices and (now) television (link is external). Information on and about our online and offline lives is fed into supercomputers, (link is external) where it becomes a potent mix of insights and other “actionable” details as our profiles are enhanced with a plethora of added details readily obtained from giant (link is external) one-stop-shopping “marketing data clouds (link is external).”

The data collected on individuals (link is external) today include a far-reaching array of information (link is external) on how much money we make; what our health concerns are; what our race or ethnicity (link is external) is; how we spend our time (link is external) online and offline and what we do there; and much more. In milliseconds, decisions are made about our lives. Should we get an ad or offer for a credit card or payday loan? Do we likely have cancer or some other serious illness and are looking for treatments? What video game, film, sporting event ad or editorial content should we receive—whether “fake” (link is external) or from legitimate news sources? The data-driven digital marketing system is now also a major way citizens determine the fate of their nation, such as the vote on “Brexit (link is external)” and the U.S. presidential election (to cite just two examples).

The pursuit of user monetization—getting our thumbs to buy, as Facebook puts it—is just one goal. So is using all the clout the digital giants and their allies can muster to get individuals and groups to embrace brands and products as part of their identity. Marketers are increasingly deploying new ways to influence our actions and emotions, including through artificial intelligence (link is external), virtual (link is external) reality, 3D video (link is external), cognitive computing (such as IBM’s Watson (link is external)), and the expanded use of neuromarketing. (link is external)

The largely unchecked role that data-driven digital marketing plays in the lives of adults is troubling enough. But we should all be concerned about its impact (link is external) on young people. From undermining their privacy, to encouraging them to buy junk food, “pester” their parents to spend money, promote (link is external) products and brands to their friends by serving as influencers, or stealthily honing (link is external) their identity and social development to promote life-long brand loyalty, marketers and media companies are playing an important role shaping this and future generations of young people. One has only to see how digital marketing is being used by fast food (link is external) companies to peddle (link is external) junk food around the world—despite the youth obesity epidemic—to witness how these forces can undermine a person’s health and potential. Market researchers are constantly studying (link is external) how best to use the Internet, mobile devices, and social media to ensure ads and brand messages play an important—and unavoidable—role in children’s lives. While digital media offer children and adolescents important ways to learn, play, and communicate, they have also unleashed forces that require scrutiny, corporate responsibility, and regulation.

One critical safeguard that both children and teens require is to have their privacy rights (link is external) respected. The European Union has a historic opportunity to implement its new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR (link is external)) to ensure that there are meaningful controls for data gathered on youth. (The new law comes into force in May 2018.) Throughout the EU, companies (link is external) are using mobile phones, apps, social media, music streaming channels, YouTube, and more to entice “digital natives” to turn over their information. Data is the new “gold” and in the case of young people, worth some $1.2 trillion yearly in buying and influencing power.

But different rules are required for young children versus adolescents. Affirmative consent from a parent or caregiver before data collection can occur from a child is one important safeguard. That’s because the business model of the digital industry significantly depends on a person not being able to effectively “opt-out” of the data profiling process. The default is collection. Google and other digital ad firms make their vast revenues ($178 billion and growing) (link is external) by being able to seamlessly gather our information without having to first ask, or being required to candidly explain what they do. (To see a glimpse of how Google or Facebook really work to help advertisers, see here (link is external) and here (link is external).)

By first requiring truly informed consent, the process established by commercial sites (such as “read our privacy policy” if you can find or understand it (link is external)) breaks. As one of the two people (along with Prof. Kathryn Montgomery (link is external)) who led the campaign that resulted in the enactment of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) (link is external) in 1998, I know that in the U.S. the range and nature of digital marketing and data practices that occur once someone turns 13 (and is no longer covered by COPPA’s parental consent requirement) is starkly different than online marketing directed at children. You just don’t see on sites targeting children what you unfortunately discover nearly everywhere else.

Although COPPA serves as a critical safeguard (and we were able to significantly expand (link is external) its coverage in 2012 to include mobile, apps, gaming, and other platforms as well as geolocation and other increasingly used tracking data), it’s not enough. The marketing practices designed to elicit the data from children and encourage parents to say “yes” also require public policies.

In addition, adolescents require a different approach. While well meaning, the new provision in the GDPR raising the age for required parental consent from 13 to 16 is not the best way (link is external) to address the problem. It’s true that teens are a key target (link is external) for digital marketers in the EU and globally, both for their data and from the marketing opportunities that result. But young people should be able to participate effectively in the digital culture without having to ask permission first.

The answer, I believe, is not merely encouraging Member States to vote to roll back the GDPR provision so they can set the age of consent back to 13 (link is external). What’s required is the development of rules that empower teens (link is external) to make their own decisions regarding data collection—in which they have the right to “opt-in” after being told how their data will actually be used. (Such disclosure, if honestly made, would serve as a cautionary tale for many young people, I believe.) The EU and Member States also need to craft an enforceable set of Fair Marketing Practices for the Digital Era that protects children and teens and ensures their rights (link is external) are respected (and which would be useful for the rest of us as well!).

As we all know, the online marketplace targeting young people is booming, (link is external) with companies such as Google specifically creating sites (e.g., YouTube Kids (link is external)) where even the youngest (such as five and under) are encouraged to spend time. Growing investment in efforts (link is external) to lure children into digital environments, through games, video, and social media, along with ongoing technological innovation (such as immersive AI environments), will foster an even more ubiquitous and effective online marketing environment. Given their historic commitments to data protection, human rights, and the rights of minors (link is external), the EU and Member States should play a leadership role ensuring that the commercial marketplace engages young people in ways that truly respect their privacy and enhance their well-being.