November 21, 2022. Fairplay and Center for Digital Democracy Comments to FTC on Commercial Surveillance Proposed Rulemaking

The Center for Digital Democracy, Fairplay, and #HalfTheStory, American Academy of Pediatrics, Becca Schmill Foundation, Berkeley Media Studies Group, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Federation of California, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy & Action, Enough is Enough,, Lynn’s Warriors, National Eating Disorders Association, Parents Television and Media Council, ParentsTogether, Peace Educators Allied for Children Everywhere (P.E.A.C.E.), Public Citizen and UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health appreciate that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is looking closely at the prevalence of commercial surveillance and data security practices that harm consumers. As outlined below, we urge the Federal Trade Commission to propose a rule prohibiting the prevalent, unfair, and deceptive practice of surveillance advertising to minors. Further, we ask that the trade regulation rules adopted by the Commission limit commercial surveillance of minors. 

As we demonstrate in our comments, children and teenagers experience widespread commercial surveillance practices to collect data used to target them with marketing. Targeted and personalized advertising remains the dominant business model for digital media, with the marketing and advertising industry identifying children and teens as a prime target. Minors are relentlessly pursued while, simultaneously, they are spending more time online than ever before. Children’s lives are filled with surveillance, involving the collection of vast amounts of personal data of online users. This surveillance, informed by behavior science and maximized by evolving technologies, allows platforms and marketers to profile and manipulate children.

The prevalence of surveillance advertising and targeted marketing aimed at minors is unfair in violation of Section 5. Specifically, data-driven marketing and targeted advertising causes substantial harm to children and teens by:

  • violating their privacy;
  • manipulating them into being interested in harmful products;
  • undermining their autonomy
  • perpetuating discrimination and bias;

Additionally, the design choices tech companies use to optimize engagement and data collection in order to target marketing to minors further harm children and teens. These harms include undermining their physical and mental wellbeing and increasing the risk of problematic internet risk. These harms cannot reasonably be avoided by minors or their families, and there are no countervailing benefits to consumers or competition that outweigh these harms.

Surveillance advertising is also deceptive to children, as defined by the Federal Trade Commission. The representations made about surveillance advertising by adtech companies, social media companies, apps, and games are likely to mislead minors and their parents and guardians. These misrepresentations and omissions are material. Many companies also mislead minors and their guardians by omission because they fail to disclose important information about their practices. These practices impact the choices of minors and their families every day as they use websites, apps, and services without an understanding of the complex system of data collection, retention, and sharing that is used to influence them online. We therefore urge the Commission to promulgate a rule that prohibits targeted marketing to children and teenagers.

The complexity of the surveillance advertising apparatus and its omnipresence in Americans’ lives render it unavoidable for children and teens. The FTC has the necessary legal authority to make rules protecting children and teens from harmful online practices related to commercial surveillance. We urge the Commission to prohibit data-driven surveillance advertising and marketing to individuals under 18. We propose rule text in Appendix A, as well as additional additional standards to advance data practices in the best interests of young people in Appendix B.

To read the comments in their entirety, click here.