Flawed Facebook and COPPA study funded by Microsoft fails to ask the right questions/Disturbing Conflicts of Interest
By: Jeff Chester | Nov 1 2011
Why are researchers that are funded by the online ad lobby afraid to examine the data collection practices by the companies that pay for their research? That's one question we hope danah boyd and John Palfrey will answer. Because if they actually examined and tried to understand the digital marketing and data collection system, they would have to abandon their anti-kids privacy screed. Anyone who follows Facebook and social media marketing understands it's a far-reaching privacy, consumer protection, and civil liberties nightmare. They ignore a key reason why COPPA was and is required: to limit the ability of marketers to collect data from children that can be used for unfair and deceptive marketing practices. Once a kid turns 13 in this country and is no longer protected by the COPPA opt-in safeguard, they are targeted in all kinds of unfair and deceptive ways (see our recent Pepsi complaint for an example). Reflecting the inadequacies of a cultural studies/ethnographic approach to a problem, the report conveniently ignores the political online ad economy that has created an out-of-control social surveillance system.
The reason Facebook doesn't permit users under 13 to join is that it would require a parent to opt-in to the data collection--and also be fully informed about social media marketing. That's something Facebook doesn't want to do. Facebook could create a system where children could join under the fair rules established by COPPA. It's Facebook's fault if parents and children need to lie about their age because it doesn't want to embrace privacy safeguards appropriate for youth. Rather than examine how data is collected by Facebook and the privacy issues raised for young people, this Microsoft funded survey (Microsoft has a conflict of interest since its owns a small piece of Facebook, engages in social media marketing and targeting, and doesn't really want to see COPPA strengthened), asked questions without providing parents context and information. Few parents--let alone children and teens--understand or can control the data collection and online targeting applications deployed by Facebook's social media surveillance system. When they begin to discover what's really going on, watch out.
Without any real evidence the authors claim that COPPA isn't working. But its narrow mindset illustrates how researchers have failed to understand the online marketing system and its implications (Luckily, we have a new book coming in January from Prof. Joe Turow of UPenn on the dangers from contemporary digital marketing that should be required reading, esp. for these researchers. I'm sure Microsoft will buy them copies!). This study is an industry-funded attack against the current FTC proceedings that will ensure that children cannot be targeted via mobile and location data services or be the victims of companies engaged in behavioral targeting (which Microsoft does, of course).
Conflicts of interest: The study should have clearly identified the conflicts of interest raised by Ms. Boyd's work for Microsoft Research; Microsoft Research is working to expand behavioral targeting and data collection.
It should have identified author Palfrey's conflict as a venture capitalist who works investing in online advertising start-ups.
Palfrey's Berkman Center funding by Microsoft other online marketers should also have been identified.
Eszter Hargittai's funding from Google and Nokia should have been identified.
First Monday, where this was published, should review its conflict of ethics policy.
Microsoft's targeting of youth with online marketing and data collection should have been acknowledged and addressed. Do a search here for Microsoft to get just a small example of what they do around the world.
PS: Just to illustrate how uninformed about Facebook and online marketing the reseachers are, read this except. Perhaps they will be writing next to urge us to leave our data for the digital tooth fairy!: "Were parents and their children able to gain access honestly, the site providers might well present them with child–appropriate experiences and information designed to enhance safety, provide for better privacy protections, and encourage parent–child discussions of online safety."