FTC Urged To Tighten Standards For Online Marketing To Minors

A coalition of children's advocates today will urge the Federal Trade Commission to tighten standards for marketing to minors online.

Specifically, the groups are asking the FTC to urge marketers to refrain from tracking Web users under 18 online for the purposes of serving them ads based on their Web-surfing history.

"These young consumers lack the capacity to make meaningful, informed decisions regarding the trade-off between privacy and online services," the groups stated in a 14-page letter to the FTC. Signatories include the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Pediatricians, American Psychological Association, Benton Foundation, Center for Digital Democracy, Children Now and United Church of Christ.

Separately, the Center for Digital Democracy today will also ask the FTC to issue new rules regarding behavioral targeting of children and teens.

Behavioral targeting usually involves tracking people as they surf the Web via cookies that are placed on their browsers, evaluating people's interests based on the sites they visit, and then serving ads based on that analysis. So someone who visits sites about cars might be served car ads. Many companies that use behavioral targeting explain the process in their privacy policies, which also give users the ability to opt out of such targeting.

But the advocates argue that children and teens aren't capable of comprehending sites' privacy policies and giving informed consent to data collection. "There's evidence that even a lot of adults don't understand privacy policies," said Corie Wright, lawyer for Georgetown's Institute for Public Representation, which represents the groups. "Is it reasonable to expect that a 7-year-old or a 14-year-old will understand and consent to a complicated legal contract?"

The groups also say it's easier for marketers to manipulate children and teens than adults, because youngsters don't always know the difference between content and ads.

But ad industry executives say it's not realistic to impose hard-and-fast age limits on Web marketing. The main reason is because marketers can't ascertain Web users' ages without collecting personally identifiable information. Many behavioral targeting platforms are cookie-based and collect data anonymously, which means that marketers don't know the names or ages of the users they're tracking.

"It's not tenable," said Dave Morgan, founder of behavioral marketing company Tacoda and a former ad executive at AOL. "The only way to know whether someone is under or over a certain age is to capture personally identifiable data."

But Jeff Chester, founder and executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, countered that companies can often assess the age of Web users based on the sites they visit. "To the extent that the content that's being consumed is teen-related content, we don't want any behavioral targeting," he said.

Morgan added that many advertisers already eschew targeting children or young adolescents. "Marketing to children is like the third rail in this industry--you don't touch it," he said.

Still, he added, it doesn't make sense to always steer clear of older teens. "Like it or not, we're letting teenagers drive cars and buy cars, so they are part of the marketing ecosystem," he said.

The advocacy groups are asking for voluntary guidelines for targeting to teens for now, but say that the FTC should issue new rules prohibiting behavioral targeting for teens if the industry doesn't follow the guidelines. The advocates also are asking for new regulations that would prohibit deploying behavioral targeting techniques on Web users under age 13 without their parents' consent.

Some of the proposals appear especially aimed at social networks that collect demographic information about their users and then deploy behavioral targeting that aren't anonymous. That is, some social networking sites send ads to users based on a combination of demographic information they've posted with other data about their Web activities. In those cases, marketers would have a hard time arguing that they don't know the age of people they're targeting.

The industry group Network Advertising Initiative Thursday issued its own set of proposed new standards regarding behavioral targeting. That organization is asking members to avoid using any Web-surfing data to create a marketing category that could be used to target users under 13. Members of that organization include AOL's Advertising.com and Tacoda, Revenue Science, Google's DoubleClick and Yahoo.

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