Privacy

Bill would limit online tracking of teens, provide 'eraser button'

Nov. 15, 2013 at 1:13 PM ET

Video: The Do Not Track Act of 2013 recently introduced in Congress would make it easier for parents to protect their young teens in this mobile media environment. Herb Weisbaum explains the bill and shares a surprisingly candid conversation he had with one o...

Advertisers who want to reach teens know where to find them. They’re on the Internet — often connected by a mobile device. By tracking their online behavior, companies can deliver targeted advertising messages to them.

“Things are definitely out of control right now,” said Joy Spencer, associate director at the Center for Digital Democracy. “When it comes to data collection, there are no safeguards for kids age 13, 14 and 15. They face a pervasive system of commercial surveillance and we think it needs to be reined in.”

The Do Not Track Act of 2013 introduced in Congress on Thursday would make it easier for parents to protect their young teens in this mobile media environment. It would expand the privacy protections of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) and create a new tool — the "eraser button" — to help do this.

COPPA requires written parental permission before a website or app can collect, use or disclose personal information — including photos, video or geo-location data — about kids 12 and younger.

The Do Not Track Act of 2013 would extend and expand these privacy safeguards to teens age 13 to 15. It would:

  • Prohibit Internet companies from collecting personal and location information from anyone under 13 without parental consent and anyone 13 to 15 years old without the user’s consent.
  • Require them to explain the types of personal information collected and how that information is used and disclosed, and the policies for collection of personal information.
  • Require consent of the parent or teen before targeted advertising could be sent to anyone under 15.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), two members of Congress who are passionate about privacy, are the driving force behind this effort.

“We must not allow the era of Big Data to become Big Danger for children on the Internet in the 21st century,” Markey said in a statement.

For Barton, who has an 8-year-old son and five grandchildren under the age of 14, this is personal.

“It’s a big deal for me,” he said. “I have six precious little souls whose privacy I want to protect.”

Barton candidly admits this bill could interfere with some online commercial activities, but he strongly believes privacy trumps commerce, especially when it involves children.

NBC News contacted several digital advertising organizations to get their response to the Do Not Track Act, but could not reach anyone who could discuss the proposed legislation. In the past, business groups have generally opposed expansion of online privacy rights, stating that it would hurt them financially.

Oops, I’d like to remove that information

Over-sharing is a common problem in the digital age. That’s especially true with kids, who may not realize the potential consequences of disclosing personal information on social networks.

The Do Not Track bill would require the creation of "eraser button" technology that would let children or their parents eliminate publicly available personal information when technologically feasible.

California already has an "eraser button” law which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2015. Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media (and father of four), would like to see this technology required across the country.

“As kids and teens live more and more of their lives in online, social-network and mobile ecosystems, this legislation empowers them to erase some of their digital footprints,” Steyer said in a statement.

A poll by Common Sense Media found that 94 percent of adults and 92 percent of teens felt they should be able to request the deletion of all their personal information held by a search engine, social network or marketing company after a specific time period.

Widespread support from consumer advocates

Consumer groups have high praise for the bill. They’ve been for legislation that would limit the ability of marketers to track kids online, especially their location, and use this information to deliver targeted marketing.

“This is a common-sense measure for helping families navigate the Internet,” said Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, in a statement. “Parents would be given more control over the personal information that online companies collect from their kids.”

Michelle de Mooy, the privacy advocate at Consumer Action, believes Congress must act because self-regulation has been “a pretty big failure” for the most part.

“It’s a really good step in addressing some of the marketing practices that have started to cross the line,” she said.

Can this bill make it through Congress? Similar legislation failed in 2011 and 2012.

With bipartisan support in both houses, Barton believes the third time could be the charm.

Common Sense Media has created a website for families who want to find out more about the issue and let their lawmakers know how they feel about the bill.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.

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