Who Is Watching Your Kids? Apps, Apparently

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

According to a report in the New York Times, a study of 400 apps designed for and marketed to children revealed that only 20% of them provide appropriate disclosures to parents about what kind of data they are collecting about children.

In many cases, apps were found to collect data such as device ID, name, phone number and location — all pieces of private information that parents wary about their children’s safety would be hesitant to share with app companies, let alone the faceless third parties the app firms share the information with. The study revealed several other equally disturbing facts, like many children’s apps that say they are ad-free do in fact have ads and that privacy disclosures are often overly complex and designed to obfuscate meaning for the parents who bother to read them.

We in the book publishing industry can imagine why such data is being collected: to build customer databases; to market the next generation of products; to learn more about readers; etc. I seriously doubt that executives at companies like Scholastic and Sesame Workshop have much more nefarious plans for data they collect than those.

The Federal Trade Commission, which authored the study, is not sympathetic. It’s looking to write stricter rules for companies that produce apps, adding on to the 1998 law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protrection Act, which requires websites to get parents’ permission before collecting personal data about children under 13. It’s currently unclear whether and how apps fall under that law.

Regardless, it’s hard to defend an app — any app, let alone a children’s app — that says that it will do one thing and does another. I think it would benefit the children’s digital publishing industry to join in the process of calling for more transparency in children’s digital products — and helping write the new rules around it.

As children’s publishers try to build their digital businesses, which have lagged behind those of adult trade publishers, they need to do all they can to counter any prevailing winds. The possible problems they could face (a partial list):

1. Parents wary of digital products being less educational for their children than print products.
2. Advocacy groups opposing children’s digital products because of reasons mentioned above.
3. Parents and children who don’t have easy access to devices where digital content can be purchased and consumed.
4. An ebookstore that isn’t necessarily built for selling interactive, interesting reading experiences; an app store that doesn’t favor discovery.
5. Parents’ reluctance to spend $9.99 on a piece of children’s content if it’s not a physical book.

There are certainly more challenges ahead for children’s digital publishers and I think they should do themselves a service when it comes to this particular issue and join advocacy groups in determining the future of children’s digital privacy and disclosure. The rules will be written anyway, after all, with the help and participation of the industry or without it.

Learn more about the future of children’s digital publishing at the Children’s Publishing Goes Digital conference at Digital Book World on Jan. 15.

The children’s digital publishing programming continues at the first day of Digital Book World 2013 on Jan. 16.

Don’t miss out on either jam-packed program. Register today!


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