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Biden attacks Big Tech's data addiction, wants more protection for kids

Old man yells at cloud, literally

President Joe Biden in his State of the Union Speech on Tuesday evening called for the passage of legislation to stop technology companies from harvesting children's data and to generally limit broader information collection.

"It's time to pass bipartisan legislation to stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on kids and teenagers online, ban targeted advertising to children, and impose stricter limits on the personal data these companies collect on all of us," Biden said.

The White House elaborated on this theme in a policy statement outlining the administration's goals by calling for stronger data privacy and platform transparency for all Americans, and for algorithmic transparency, a cornerstone of the proposed AI bill of rights.

In response to Biden's call to ban targeted online advertising directed at children, digital advocacy group Fight the Future urged the administration to go further and extend tracking protection to everyone.

"The best way to protect our kids online is to protect everyone online," said Evan Greer, its director said in a statement. "We should start by outlawing the harmful and predatory commercial surveillance practices that are at the root of Big Tech’s harm."

"That means passing a strong Federal data privacy law that prevents tech companies from collecting so much sensitive data about all of us in the first place, and gives individuals the ability to sue companies that misuse their data."

Greer added that antitrust reforms to foster competition are also necessary, something Biden also advocated.

The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), an ad industry lobbying group supported by Google, Meta, Microsoft, and many others, offered a more cautious endorsement of Biden's call to protect children online. The group endorsed the idea of a federal data privacy law that preempts state laws – some of which are stronger than the industry would like.

"Punishing bad actors is a must, and IAB supports stronger laws to protect kids, but blaming data and technology for complex problems, and restricting or eliminating digital advertising, could severely diminish the benefits of the internet for everyone," said IAB EVP for public policy Lartease Tiffith in a canned statement.

Is it all moot?

Privacy legislation, if a bipartisan bill can actually be passed, may not be enough. A report released on Tuesday by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that Americans don't understand privacy well enough to make informed decisions about how their data gets handled.

The report, penned by UPenn professors Joseph Turow, Yphtach Lelkes, Nora Draper, and Ari Ezra Waldman, spells out the problem with privacy in its title: "Americans can't consent to companies' use of their data."

Simply put, privacy rules in the US and elsewhere depend upon the idea that data usage should be allowed when a person has given voluntary consent. But, according to the report, people can't meaningfully consent to what they do not understand.

"What we find now definitively negates the idea that Americans feel that they can adequately understand and consent to marketers' data-gathering regime," the report says. "It also indicates that Americans do not have even the basic knowledge to benefit from such a regime. At this point in the development of the internet, individual consent is unworkable."

Turow, a UPenn media studies professor and lead author of the report, told The Register that "the ideas of consent, often what the [advertising] industry want to push in national legislation, are just unacceptable anymore."

Turow cited the report's finding that 77 percent of Americans failed – scored 53 percent correct or less – a survey posing 17 questions about privacy, surveillance, and technology.

"These were not the hardest questions in the world, and they're not unimportant questions," said Turow. "So we argue that the best way to realize a fair and safe web for individuals is contextual advertising."

Contextual advertising refers to ads that are based on the context in which they are presented – e.g. food ads in a supermarket – rather than based on someone's personal data.

"I think contextual advertising is a great solution," said Turow. "The thing is, we've had 30 years of this creeping ability of companies to create a sea of, of tracking underneath everything that we do, and I'm not sure we want our grandkids to have even more of it."

Turow argues the invasiveness of ads will only get worse if something isn't done, pointing to the potential to have spam targeted not just by demographic data, but by biometric and biological data – voice, face, and so on.

He said we never should have gone down the road of targeted advertising and marketing surveillance. "There were people even in the 1990s, including some of the most important people dealing with the internet like Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, who warned against this," he said. "It doesn't have to happen."

The question now is can it be undone? ®

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