The zero-data Internet for kids is coming
Yesterday, news broke that some of the world’s largest kids’ brands were being fined for illegally collecting data on kids. It follows the recent (near-bankrupting) fine levied on InMobi for the same activity.
For a lot of people, the news probably came as a surprise. In reality, this is a growing megatrend which has been bubbling in the background for several years: the emergence of the zero-data Internet for kids.
Silicon Valley (and Madison Ave) has long operated on the principle that nobody under thirteen actually exists on the Internet. It turns out that this isn’t entirely correct.
In the last five years, kids have become one of the fastest growing Internet audiences (a trend which caught content owners, media companies and brands by surprise). Today, 80%+ kids under 13 have access to a tablet. With proliferation of smartphones, it’s hard to believe that virtually ever kid doesn’t have some kind of access, but let’s take that 80% number at face value. There are just over 50M kids under 13 in the US alone which means about 40M kids online today. Right now.
Although our go-to disruptor community has missed this fact, politicians haven’t. The US has taken the lead in rolling out kids data privacy law (COPPA) and the EU is now following fast (GDPR). These laws essentially make it illegal to collect data of almost any form (including cookies) from under-13s without express parental consent. In theory this prevents the entire martech/adtech sector from interacting with kids.
Three years ago, we started building compliance-driven tools very specifically for the u13 digital media market. We walked into a lot of meetings in the early days with our products to be told, “Oh we’ve just switched on the ‘family flag’ on our existing (data-rich) platform, so it’s all fine”. Turns out that huge platforms architected to capture vast amounts of profile data run by teams of people who sell highly targeted ad solutions can’t just switch to doing the opposite of that.
As you can probably discern from yesterday’s announcement, that attitude is changing fast. Today about 250 companies use our technology to ensure kid-safe ad serving, safe social, kid/parent authentication and related areas. Recently someone described us as ‘the operating system for the kids’ Internet’. Our global team of 85 (I suspect we’re a lot bigger than our clients realise) and our platform now deal with billions of various transactions every month. That’s not a boast, it’s an illustration of the growing investment by companies in the kids’ sector towards under-13 data privacy.
This post isn’t about calling out the companies who were mentioned yesterday (despite the coverage, most of those named take this subject very seriously and have rapidly increasing levels of investment in their digital kids strategy), it’s about everyone outside the kids market.
Platforms, products and service owners need to embrace that fact that kids do in fact exist and create safe ways for them to interact, moving from an ‘oops kids?’ approach to a ‘here’s our zero-data version’ approach. Pokemon Go is a great example of a mainstream/all-ages game which made a conscious decision to build in an u13 COPPA-compliant registration workflow from the beginning. Other very large video and music platforms which are known to have similar proportions of kids could learn much from it.
Data privacy law for kids isn’t going away. We’re rapidly approaching the point where every app will have two modes of operation: data-rich (13+) and zero-data (under-13).
We’ve spent ~30 years building an Internet which captures as much data as possible on its users. Now we have to build the opposite. Internet balloons and Internet drones are very cool but how about we also make the Internet safer for kids at the same time?