Privacy Fundamentalists Are Worried About Smart Toothbrushes…Because Children
One of the most important technology trends right now is the rise of the Internet of Things—the transformation of “dumb” ordinary objects into “smart” network-enabled devices that can sense and respond to their environment. The Internet of Things is not only unleashing a wave of consumer products that help individuals live healthier, safer, and more convenient lives, it is also at the heart of a new industrial revolution that promises enormous advances in productivity as the digital and physical economies converge. Unfortunately, some people oppose these advances, and in an effort to recruit others to their cause, they have trotted out their most tired, yet still most potent, argument against new technologies: “It is bad for the children.” Not only are they wrong, but policymakers should take steps to make sure existing regulations do not interfere with children’s access to the Internet of Things, given the outsized benefits this technology could have for kids.
Certain people always fear and oppose new technologies, regardless of the positive outcomes they may bring. The reasons vary, but one core group of technology detractors is privacy fundamentalists—a term coined by noted privacy researcher Alan Westin to describe the minority of individuals who hold uncompromising views on privacy. These individuals are generally distrustful of organizations that collect personal information and advocate for laws that restrict data collection. Their most notable victory was convincing Congress to pass the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), legislation regulating how websites and online services can collect information about children under the age of 13. While the premise of COPPA sounds reasonable, i.e. give parents greater choice over how websites collect information about their children, the reality is quite the opposite.
COPPA imposes a number of restrictions on what companies can do with data about children and the process they must use to obtain consent from parents before using this data. The result of COPPA is that many online services—from Facebook to Twitter—simply ban children from their platforms. Others allow children into “walled gardens” (i.e., restricted portions of a website separate from all other users) which are often devoid of personalization, social networking, and other features requiring the use of personal data, even though these features are what make sites interesting and interactive. Moreover, since COPPA limits the ability of Internet companies to use targeted ads (which provide the revenue needed to pay for content and services), developers are left with two options: they can display a high-volume of ads for the big brands, e.g. Matel, Hasbro, Lego, etc., that can afford to saturate the children’s market, or they can charge parents fees for their children to access online services, to the detriment of those less well off. Not surprisingly, those who endorse stricter privacy laws for children often ignore the impact that these policies can have on the quality of digital services for children and the access to these services by children in low-income families.
It should not come as a shock that COPPA is already having a detrimental impact on children’s use of the Internet of Things. Just as COPPA forced them to do for websites, many companies are simply banning children from their products. For example, Fitbit, which makes wearable fitness trackers for consumers, states that its product is not meant for children and prevents parents from creating profiles for their children, even though 18 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 are obese. So rather than increase choice for parents (who frankly already had the choice to buy or not buy any particular product), the government has instead effectively taken it away. Moreover, the myopic focus on privacy comes at the expense of using data-driven solutions to address important issues, such as childhood obesity.
While it is virtually impossible to fully quantify all the ways the Internet of Things will benefit children, there are many reasons to suspect it will be substantial. For one, these types of devices are ideal for children who may be better at giving verbal commands and listening to responses than typing and reading. In addition, the Internet of Things allows ordinary activities to be measured and quantified which in turn creates the necessary data to incentivize positive behaviors. This technique, often referred to as “gamification” because it incorporates elements like scoring and competition typical in game play, is ideally suited for teaching children healthy habits. For example, to help children learn how to play sports like lacrosse which involve a lot of individual practice, the company SNYPR is developing a smart device that can monitor throws, track the amount of time spent practicing, and encourage friendly competition by allowing players to share their accomplishments with their friends and coaches. And to help children develop good oral hygiene, a number of companies including established firms like Philips and startups like Kolibree have designed smart toothbrushes designed to teach good brushing habits by using interactive games. While adults will surely benefit from these types of products as well, these products are perhaps best suited for children who are still learning how to do these tasks well and may be motivated by competing with their peers.
However, privacy activists show no signs of compromise. Kathryn Montgomery, a professor at American University, who helped write COPPA, says that it is “really threatening and harmful” for children to use smart devices, while Khaliah Barnes, with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, simply calls it “creepy.” And Jeffrey Chester, who leads the Center for Digital Democracy, claims that these products “undermine our privacy.” Unsurprisingly, these privacy activists offer little or no evidence of actual harm. And notably, they are strategic in their outrage: the fault never lies with the parents who buy these products, but rather with the companies who foist these products on unsuspecting consumers. This is a textbook example of a technopanic where inflated fears about technology are driven by emotion rather than reason.
Not only should congressional lawmakers reject the narrative advanced by privacy fundamentalists that the Internet of Things is bad for children, they should go a step further and pass legislation to modify COPPA so that it does not apply to smart devices. As the number of connected devices in homes and cars increases, children will naturally want to use these devices. While policymakers should require companies to be transparent about how they collect and use consumer data, they should not implement the kind of market-distorting policies found in COPPA that ultimately undermine consumer choice and hurt, not help, children. By striking the right balance, policymakers can ensure that parents have the option of allowing their children to benefit from the coming wave of smart devices.