Nickelodeon, Google, and Your Child's Safety

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit heard information this month regarding Google cookies on a popular children's site, Nickelodeon, and whether Google's intent was to track children with the data.

Counsel for the plaintiffs argued that Google, and Nickelodeon's parent company, Viacom, violated the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPAA) through the use of cookies on the Nickelodeon site. The defendants argued that because Google and Viacom are not videotape service providers, the VPAA does not apply.

In conjunction with other data at Google's disposal, it was argued that the data collected by the cookies on Nickelodeon's site could make an individual personally identifiable. As the site's main users are children, one of the judges presiding over the case asked if Google was "intentionally tracking children without their consent?"1

Nickelodeon's site gathers information from their users through such as usernames, birthdates, and genders. Google's cookies recorded children's IP addresses, browser information, operating system information, and the content of their Web communications. For many parents, this is a scary prospect. Browsing history, web communications, and IP addresses contain data that may make a person identifiable. If used, this data can track what a user is looking at on the Internet, what and to whom they are communicating, and where they are located, as IP addresses are often attached to a person's name, address, or other identifiable information.

The plaintiffs argued that the case wasn't about Google identifying particular children, but rather about the fact that Google had the ability to identify children based on the wealth of information at their disposal. Counsel for the defendants stated Viacom did not collect information from its subscribers, citing the privacy statement on the registration page, which tells children not to use their names for the site's username, and that the site only asks for the birthdate and gender of registrants.

Counsel representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the question that really needs to be answered in this case, was if the language regarding personally identifiable information in the VPAA also includes related services, such as streaming videos from websites, which is one of the Nickelodeon site's main features. It will be interesting to see how this issue unfolds.

In the meantime, there are tools and tricks that parents can use to help prevent sites from gathering potentially identifiable information, such as blocking the ability for sites to use cookies. Most of these settings can be found under your preferred browser's main "Settings" and "Privacy" folders. Sometimes they are called, "Tools," or "Internet Options." It depends on your browser and the version you are using. Look for things like "Block Cookies," or "Block third-party cookies," under the privacy settings. Limiting the way a browser's cookies can gather information can help protect valuable information. Monitoring children and their online activities is an ever-evolving job for parents, teachers, and caregivers alike, and cases such as this one bring to light new issues we will face.

1. D'Annuzio, P.J. "Google's Gleaning of Children's Info Eyed by Third Circuit." The Legal Intelligencer. Web. 12 Dec 2015.