How regulations respond to children’s rights online is a fundamental question of our time.
Article by WIRED Opinion**
Youtube is currently under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission following complaints that the platform improperly collected data from young users.
It’s unclear how much data this might be, but there’s reason to believe it could be a lot. For many kids, YouTube has replaced television; depending on how parents use online platforms, children could begin to amass data even before birth.
81% of the world’s children and 92% of US children now have an online presence before they turn 2. In addition, 95% of US teens report having (or having access to) a smartphone. And 45% of those teens are online on a near-constant basis, an average of nine hours each day.
Some preeminent tech figures, such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook, have asserted that the answer to this massive online footprint is “data ownership,” in which users control their own data and decide when to allow corporations or governments to use it.
Though this idea may sound appealing, it is not a sufficient tool in protecting individuals—especially children—from the pervasive effects of an uncontrollable online identity.
First, ownership makes no sense when the subject isn’t the creator of the content. Indeed, a person cannot remove content published about them by someone else. During their earliest years, kids’ digital identities are shaped by other individuals, most likely their parents. That means a massive amount of public information about them might be generated before they are able to understand what it means to give consent.
Furthermore, data can be aggregated. Regardless of whether a person uses online services, some decisions will still be made without their control—even without their knowledge—through inference algorithms.
Imagine that a child avoids having a digital footprint—that neither this child’s parents nor the child herself has ever used or posted anything online. Institutions can still use data about other youngsters who fall into similar categories (such as those with the same zip code or those who go to the same school) to make inferences about the child. To put it simply, even if a child is somehow shielded from a premature online identity, his or her life will still be influenced by the online presence of similar children.
The practice of data collection could have far-reaching consequences for children’s fundamental rights. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most ratified human rights treaty ever, protects children as individuals.