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New Online Privacy Loophole Lets Facebook Advertise to Kids

Adam Clark Estes
New Online Privacy Loophole Lets Facebook Advertise to Kids

Mark Zuckerberg's been eager to find a way to get more kids on Facebook for years, and on Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission handed it to him on a platter. That might be overstating it a little bit. It's more like the FTC served it to him on a platter covered in plastic wrap with a note attached that says "Do not open." Nevertheless, should Facebook decided to see what's inside, experts in online privacy for children say the social network could legally start peddling everything from kids' bicycles to that new gender-neutral Easy Bake Oven.

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After months of deliberating and plenty of lobbying on both sides of the issue, the FTC updated the controversial Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) this week. The changes were absolutely designed to better protect children in the privacy-invading era of social media, especially from the data-hungry advertisers who want to sell them things. Websites like Facebook don't allow kids to sign up without their parents permission, generally because COPPA has prohibited them from collecting the kinds of information they need to serve them ads. And why would they want a user to whom they couldn't serve ads? Under the new FTC rules, parental permission is required for just about anything a kid would do on Facebook, including uploading photos, videos and geolocational information. Tracking tools like cookies are also verboten without a parent's permission.

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But there's a loophole. The new rules say very plainly that no parental permission is needed "for the sole purpose of supporting the website or online service's internal operations, such as contextual advertising, frequency capping, legal compliance, site analysis, and network communications." The key phrase there is "contextual advertising," which is an ad product Facebook has been working on for a while. Facebook's version basically reads your News Feed and shows you ads that are relevant, or contextual, to what you're reading. As a few people have pointed out, this opens a door for Facebook to start exploring the idea of ad-supported profiles for kids. Alan Simpson, the vice president of child privacy advocacy group Common Sense, isn't happy about this idea. "Common Sense doesn't like this part, and the industry lobbyists probably do," he told TechCrunch Monday evening.

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Now, there are a lot of ifs in this scenario. Based on the magnitude and sensitivity of the issue, Facebook probably doesn't want to go scaring a bunch of parents by sneaking through loopholes to show their kids Easy Bake Oven ads. It has been nearly a decade and a half since COPPA got an update, though, and Mark Zuckerberg isn't really known for his patience. Of course, Facebook could do what they've been doing for ages, which is look over their shoulder while kids lie about having permission and sign up anyways.