From the desk of all things data privacy and Big Brother: Viacom and Google beat a class action lawsuit that aimed to punish the digital giants for data collection of information on children’s (under the age of 13) computers conducted in the interest of selling advertising.

The issue came about from Viacom and Google’s policy to place tracking cookies on the computer devices of kids who visit the website nick.com and related sites (the website of popular children’s television network Nickelodeon). What the companies track includes URLs visited, browser settings, detailed video viewing histories, and additional information. Even though there are concerns about online privacy, especially in the context of children, the companies’ actions are not illegal in and of themselves.

The plaintiffs complained that the companies violated the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA), which is a law that prohibits the knowing and non-consensual disclosure of “personally identifiable information.” In other words, the plaintiffs allege that Viacom and Google violated children’s privacy rights by collecting personal data from visiting nick.com and related sites. Plaintiffs argued that Google took the tracking information from Viacom and matched it up to registration profiles of nick.com, Gmail, YouTube, and other Google services.

However, the case precedent wasn’t in the plaintiffs’ favor. Earlier in 2014 in San Francisco, a magistrate judge ruled that online video company Hulu did not violate users’ privacy by transmitting anonymous identifiers to another company. The judge seemed to put special emphasis on the idea that the companies collecting data required additional steps to use the data to identify users. These additional steps were enough to avoid a VPPA violation.

Similarly, Viacom is not allowing Google to track any personally identifiable information or data. Rather, Google must go through additional steps to identify users with the data. If the users of nick.com don’t have any registrations with Google products, then Google won’t be able to identify the users from the data they received from Viacom. Without passing judgment on the morality of data collection in the modern age, it seems clear that data collection is not only here to stay but also big business.

Doruk Onvural

2 Responses to Nickelodeon’s Kids v. Google

  1. Sara Hunter says:

    The fact that companies track users’ Internet activity in order to collect data is common knowledge among most Internet users. Many adult users still, however, feel that such tracking is an invasion of privacy. I can understand why it would seem that tracking children’s Internet activity is an even great violation of privacy. It seems, however, that it would be nearly impossible to figure out users’ age prior to tracking. So while from a moral standpoint I am displeased by the verdict, practically it seems to be the correct decision.

    • Wayman Stodart says:

      I agree with the above comment, but cannot help but further emphasize the difficulties facing companies like Google. On the one hand, Americans want increased internet privacy and no tracking/cookie monitoring. Yet, one of the most widely used features of many internet browsers is “remember my password,” and many people use settings that store password and username data server-side. Convenience is—in many cases—contradictory with privacy, and regulators and their constituents need to decide which avenue internet regulation should take.