Biden calls for end to targeted advertising to kids: the industry reacts

Updating COPPA could present new challenges

President Biden in his State of the Union address urged Congress to crack down on social media platforms for the harms they cause to young people’s mental health. He also urged lawmakers to bar tech companies and advertisers from collecting data on and serving targeted ads to children. And while both privacy advocates and advertisers agree that protecting children’s privacy and safety is paramount, they warn against pushes for all-out bans on ad targeting.

In his first State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, President Biden urged Congress to introduce new guardrails to protect children’s safety and data privacy on social media and called for an end to targeted advertising to children.

“We must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit,” he said onstage at the House of Representatives chamber.

Biden’s emphasis on social media’s role in children’s wellbeing comes after social media companies have come under increasing fire for allegations that they do not do enough to protect young people and children against the negative impacts of social media use. Chief among these incidents was a scathing Wall Street Journal report published in September that found Meta-owned Instagram failed to introduce new protections for young users after finding that its platform caused significant harm to young people’s mental health.

The Biden administration has a larger mental health agenda that seeks to hold platforms accountable for falling short when it comes to protecting young users against sensitive or harmful content.

Another key concern surrounds the potential exploitation of minors’ personal information by big tech platforms and advertisers. The president followed his call for new social media protections with a denunciation of advertising targeted toward children, saying, “It’s time to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children.”

Data privacy is becoming an increasingly hot-button issue for many people. Consumers are demanding greater transparency and say over how their personal information is collected and used, while businesses large and small are arguing that the collection, analysis and sale of consumer data are critical components of ensuring their success in the marketplace. The issue is especially delicate when it comes to the collection of children’s data and the use of children’s data or parents’ data for tracking and ad targeting. New research from privacy firm Pixalate indicates that 80% of parents worry about their children's privacy when using apps; in particular, 73% are concerned about their children's location being tracked.

The lay of the land today

As it stands, the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) essentially bans behavioral advertising, user profiling and retargeting on apps and websites designed for children ages 13 and under. However, in recent months, a number of tech companies have come under fire for violating COPPA. In December, Google settled a lawsuit with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office after the tech titan was accused of collecting children’s personal information through its educational products and allowing developers to gather children’s data without consent. As part of the settlement, the company agreed to work with the state to launch a new children’s online safety and education program. Around the same time, advertising platform OpenX agreed to pay $2m in a settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission over allegations that it collected personal information from children under the age of 13 without parental consent.

Biden may also be calling for an end to data collection and targeting related to children because COPPA does not currently include privacy protections for teens, though a bipartisan bill introduced in May of 2021 could change that. President Biden’s statements last night suggest that he hopes to push the bill through Congress soon. It’s worth noting, however, that there are certain challenges inherent to updating and enforcing COPPA. One is the legislation’s “Actual Knowledge” Standard, which essentially says that COPPA requirements apply to online services directed toward kids as well as all online services directed to general audiences who have “actual knowledge” that it is gathering personal data from children under 13. The problem is that it’s difficult to prove whether or not an online service had “actual knowledge” or not — and to hold a given service accountable.

“It is encouraging to see the recognition and prioritization of the need to strengthen children’s privacy protections,” says Arielle Garcia, chief privacy officer at global ad agency UM Worldwide. “It will be interesting to see if the ‘Actual Knowledge’ standard that exists under COPPA is addressed and perhaps re-visited to foster greater accountability on the part of platforms and developers and curtail the ‘Well, we didn’t know’ argument that we have seen in the past related to the collection and use of children’s data.”

Today, there is more focus on amping up children’s data privacy than ever. Following the UK’s decision to introduce new children-focused design standards for digital platforms — encompassed in the Age Appropriate Design Code — tech players including Google, Meta and TikTok have introduced new data privacy controls for teens and children. Meanwhile, a number of new state- and federal-level children’s privacy and online safety-related bills have been introduced. The most prominent among them is a bipartisan bill introduced in February by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn). The Kids Online Safety Act, would require social media companies to introduce new privacy features, disable addictive product features like autoplay and hold platforms liable for harms done to minors (including everything from self-harm to sexual exploitation).

Mapping the future of privacy

Largely, privacy professionals and even advertisers, publishers and developers — who often rely on the collection and use of consumer data to run their businesses — agree that extended protections for children are a good idea.

“It was encouraging to hear President Biden reference privacy during his speech and confirm that privacy is still a priority for his administration,” says Jessica Lee, partner at law firm Loeb & Loeb and co-chair of the company’s privacy, security and data innovations. She says that the question of privacy is an integral element to the broader conversation surrounding children’s safety in digital spaces.

While it’s not controversial to advocate for the protection of children’s personal information, Lee suggests that calls for an all-out ban on targeted advertising — a growing demand from some consumer interest and privacy groups — goes too far. “I appreciate that there have been calls to ban targeted advertising more broadly, but I think this could be one step in a more nuanced approach that could achieve the same goals,” she tells The Drum.

Other players in the advertising and media echo this sentiment. Eric Seufert, analyst at mobile marketing firm Mobile Dev Memo and expert in tech platforms’ privacy policies, says: “A wholesale ban on targeting advertising is an extreme maneuver that is generally unfavorable for consumers, but I doubt anyone would object to preventing ads from being targeted to children.”

Ultimately, consumers, businesses and policymakers tend to agree that the landscape of privacy will be made more clear, navigable and ethical for all players with a federal privacy law in place. As it stands, the US does not have a comprehensive data protection-focused legislative framework similar to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). While the prospect of a federal law being passed anytime soon remains low, industry players continue to express optimism. “My hope is that we can eventually reach a consensus on a federal privacy law,” says Lee. Without a federal privacy law that puts forth principled-based rules for the responsible use of personal information, we will continue to play privacy ‘whack-a-mole’ — passing or attempting to pass laws every few years to address the new issues that will inevitably arise.”

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