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7/16/2004
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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.

More than [60] million Internet users in the United States are under the age of 18. They each spend more time online than most adults do (aside from work). They shop, make buying decisions, communicate, play games, and search. They do their homework, collaborate, and hold meetings online. They participate in surveys, fill out forms, and register for online sites and services. They are the future of the Internet and E-communities and E-commerce. And, for smart E-businesses, the future is now.

In preparation for the International Association of Privacy Professionals and the TrustE nonprofit privacy initiative's West Coast conference on privacy, where we were running a plenary panel on kids, teens, and privacy, I polled 30 preteens and teens who work with TeenAngels.org (our WiredKids.org's preteen and teen online-safety program) about privacy. Their sophistication surprised me and I expect will surprise others, too.

The kids identified five areas of privacy that concerned them:

  • The collection and use of personally identifiable information;

  • Surveillance;

  • Intrusion on seclusion;

  • Private facts made public; and

  • False light.
  • These are very sophisticated concepts of privacy. The kids used different descriptions than these. But I have used the privacy law terms usually used to identify these issues. (Most are codified under state common law in the United States and may give rise to a legal right of action.) The kids defined the terms themselves, based on how they saw them.

    According to the kids:

    "Personally identifiable information" means any information that can be used to find you in real life. It includes full names, snail-mail addresses, telephone numbers, schools they attend, the names of their sport teams, etc.

    "Surveillance" included public surveillance, nanny cams, GPS tracking, monitoring software, and spyware. They were particularly concerned about adware and whether the marketers knew who they were and could target them for pop-ups and SPAM.

    "Intrusion on seclusion" or, as they called it, personal space, began as a concern over their room, their diaries, and their phone calls. It then expanded to include intrusion by spammers, pop-ups, and anything else that gathers information about them and what they do online.

    "Private facts made public" includes personal facts about their family, themselves, or their close friends that are shared with the public (as in newspapers) or with others through rumors or unauthorized disclosures. Some of the children came from high-profile families and knew the pain of this first-hand and another one of the children had experienced cyberbullying where personal and very private information about her was shared with kids at another school and quickly spread online. (In cyberbullying situations, the rumors and lies that used to appear on the bathroom wall in the boys' room now populate a wall 700 million people wide.)

    "False light" is when the facts disclosed are false or intended to create a false impression. It may not rise to the level of defamation, but can be as devastating.

    Companies expecting to win the online business of the next generation, so sophisticated about privacy matters, will do well to think about how they'll earn that generation's trust. When I asked the kids if they would be willing to have others track what they did online, they qualified their answers.

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