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7/16/2004
10:32 AM
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The Privacy Lawyer: From The Mouths Of Babes

Companies can begin winning over the next generation of online customers now, by respecting kids' privacy and being focused on adding value to their Internet experiences.

Inconsistent Positions
"Would they be able to find us offline?" "Would they spam us, send us pop-ups, or otherwise bother us?" "Would they know who we were in real life?" "Would they try and contact us?" I explained that in this magical world, the tracking would never be used to find them online or offline and would not be tied to any personally identifiable information. No one would try and sell them anything or try and contact them in any way. No one could spam them, send them pop-ups, or otherwise bother them. Their next question was key: "How do we know we can trust them not to do what they promised they wouldn't do?" I told them in my magical scenario that those tracking them were trustworthy and the information they gathered couldn't be compromised.

Roughly half of the preteens and young teens told me that they didn't see any problem with this totally trustworthy entity collecting information about what they did and how they did it. They had no problem with the entity collecting information about how many people they had on their buddy list, where they surfed, how long they spent at any page online, and what they did online (subject to all the qualifications discussed above). They felt that if some benefit resulted from this information, such as learning how to create better interfaces or about how children use the Internet, it's worth their participation.

But another group of kids felt that they should be informed and asked for their approval before any information, even totally anonymous information, is gathered about them online. And this is where it gets complicated. They also stated that if anyone asked for their approval to collect this information, they wouldn't give it. When I asked if it would then be better to have an "opt-out" mechanism, rather than an opt-in mechanism, they said that this wouldn't be fair since no one would remember or take the time to opt out.

Rather than try and resolve these inherently inconsistent positions, I asked them if it made a difference if the party collecting this information was the government or a big company or any other company.

They felt that it did make a difference. The kids seemed to trust the government doing the collection, except they asked many questions about wiretaps and police investigations and what could and what couldn't be used. At this age, most preteens and young teens trust law enforcement and view them as protecting them, rather than being concerned about police misconduct and surveillance techniques. The responses we received from older teens were slightly different.

When asked about businesses collecting the information, they responded that it depended on how familiar they were with the company. They said that certain corporations could be trusted and were seen as being trustworthy. Others were not.

When I brought up automatic updating of software, and used Microsoft as an example, the kids all became animated. "Microsoft," they all shouted, "could be trusted." (Peter Cullen, Microsoft's chief privacy strategist, should appreciate that.) One young girl cautioned that even if the company thought they were doing something to help you, they may end up "screwing up your computer." (This opinion was derived from a bad experience she ascribed to an iTunes update.) The others nodded compassionately, but defended Microsoft.

Besides, "if the company is doing something that helps you, or is good for you, it should be allowed to gather information and install updates." They had no problem with companies knowing their equipment, software applicationsE.

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