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    Op-Ed at Atlantic: Kids Are More Than Data Points

    In an opinion column at the Atlantic, Common Sense Media CEO James C. Steyer discusses the importance of privacy when it comes to children, including the data collected about their online activities.

    Fifteen years ago, Ken Auletta wrote a fascinating book called The Highwaymen, which offered a remarkable insider’s view of the various media moguls who were competing for control of the global media and entertainment industries. The book revealed a great deal about their basic psyches and world views. It essentially showed them to have split personalities and to be industry leaders who bifurcated their personal and professional lives. […]

    What Auletta discovered about such media moguls of that era as Disney’s Michael Eisner, News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch, and GE/NBC’s Jack Welch was that they somehow disassociated what they did at work from what they permitted in their own homes. They would not let their kids watch certain shows or movies at night. Yet by day, their networks and studios would go and make the very same shows and movies that they would not let their own kids watch.  […]

    Today, I see a very similar split personality emerging among the engineers and tech industry pioneers who now dominate the online and social media worlds. They too are driven by the pursuit of advertising profits as well as the stock price of their IPO, though perhaps somewhat less so than the Michael Eisner’s and Rupert Murdoch’s of the 1990s entertainment industry. Yes, they too like their enormous profits and their rising stock prices, but they truly love their data. They justify their business actions and behaviors through the engineer’s rationale that “data is virtue.” In Mark Zuckerberg’s case, they justify this massive fixation with personal data by claiming that it’s all about “transparency” and “sharing.”

    But what are the consequences of this unbridled pursuit of data and all the “transparency” and “frictionless sharing” that it supposedly engenders? Most importantly, what are the consequences of this for an immature 10-year-old or a vulnerable 12-year-old or an emotionally troubled teen? The Mark Zuckerbergs of the world don’t appear to have considered the consequences in any meaningful way. And perhaps this is predictable. They’re barely beyond their teenage years themselves. Most of them are not parents yet. Many of them appear to believe in a largely libertarian approach to life. And virtually all of them are engineers who pray at the sacred altar of data.

    Perhaps you think I’m overstating this point, but just look at the absurd statements that Zuckerberg and other tech industry gurus make on a regular basis about personal privacy. Reid Hoffman, the Founder of LinkedIn, recently said that “privacy is for old people.” Zuckerberg talks of “evolving social norms,” and he claims that Facebook wants to make the world more transparent with more “frictionless sharing.” He appears to genuinely believe this naïve mantra for everyone but himself. He’s a very private person and you can “friend” him on Facebook. The problem is that very few in the data and profit driven tech industry appears to be considering the consequences of all this “transparency and sharing,” especially when it comes to children and teens who don’t know any better. Their companies act like huge, unaccountable utilities, creating increasingly efficient platforms that seek more and more control of our personal information and data. But nobody seems to be asking how you can be a responsible tech CEO and a responsible parent raising healthy children at the same time. […]

    The reason it is so important to understand who the new tech industry moguls are and how this relates to our lives as well as to our national politics boils down to one simple word: accountability. The more that digital media shapes our lives and those of our children, the more we need accountability from the engineers and executives who dominate the tech industry. Just as they are an increasing part of the problem when it comes to privacy, not to mention the healthy social, emotional and cognitive development of our kids, so too must they be part of any solution.

    Read the full opinion column for more discussion of children’s privacy.

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