Facebook is tracking Australian teenagers online and selling their profiles to alcohol, gambling and smoking advertisers, according to new research that warns Australia needs new regulation to protect kids online.
Advertisers can target Australian Facebook users based on their interest in certain things, which the tech giant knows by monitoring their activity on its platforms and by tracking them elsewhere online.
The practice is routinely found to be out of step with community expectations, but currently there are not explicit laws regulating it or how it applies to minors in Australia.
Democracy and rights advocate Reset Australia set up test advertising campaigns to examine Facebook’s reach of young audiences and how it compares to what is on offer with adult audiences.
The group says they found little difference, with Facebook giving them the option to target users as young as 13 based on their ‘interest’ in things like smoking, gambling, alcohol or extreme weight loss.
Advertisers can direct targeted advertisements to thousands of children based on these interests for only a few dollars. For example, the group said they had the option to target one thousand underage users interested in alcohol for as little as $3.03.
What advertisers can send children is also inappropriate, according to Reset Australia, which had several deliberately ‘dubious’ ads approved by Facebook for campaigns targeted at children but did not send them for ethical reasons.
Reset Australia executive director Chris Cooper said the public is increasingly aware their data is collected online but lacks an understanding of how it is monetised and the long term risks the model creates.
“We’re sort of sleepwalking into these problems because we’ve accepted the status quo, business as usual approach of big tech companies,” he tells InnovationAus.
In 2017 leaked Facebook documents revealed the company was identifying and exploiting vulnerable young people by allowing advertisers to target 14-year-olds based on when they feel “worthless” and “insecure”. When revealed by The Australian, Facebook apologised and said it would investigate the practice.
Facebook was contacted about the Reset Australia report but did not provide a response.
Mr Cooper argues tech platforms’ failure to protect children is a consequence of the company’s fundamental business model which relies on packaging up audiences for targeted advertising. In that regard, Facebook has little incentive to clean up the practice and the consequences are potentially profound.
“I think it’s really difficult for them to shift their business model,” said Mr Cooper.
“The model as it sits is insanely profitable. And so the incentive to undermine that or shift that is not there. And that’s why, in our view, you need regulation.
“Because that’s the stick that helps to enable that kind of shift and I think without that incentive it’s very unlikely that these companies will move.”
While other countries have moved to regulate the collection of children’s data and its use to profile them for advertising, in Australia Facebook enjoys a “policy gap”, according to Reset Australia.
Last year the UK’s Information Commissioner introduced a statutory code of practice for online service providers requiring them to take into account the best interests of the child and minimise data collection on children by default.
Ireland is also moving to introduce similar data protections for children while a UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended member nations should prohibit by law the targeting of children for commercial purposes based on digital records.
Australia’s latest online safety legislation focuses on content removal and cyber bullying rather than targeted advertising. Any new protections for Children would likely come in the upcoming reforms to Australia’s Privacy Act, currently being considered by the Attorney General’s Department
Reset Australia is working with other civil society and privacy groups to contribute to the review, including arguing for specific set of privacy protections for young people.
The reforms will be needed to drag Facebook “kicking and screaming across ethical lines”, according to Mr Cooper, who says big tech is broadening its data ambitions.
“Data itself is used to shape your life experience [like] the content we’re served by the algorithms and Ultimately what version of truth and morality we get on the platform.
“And so, there’s already a number of indications there around what we see is driving polarisation in society, and a kind of breakdown of the public square and a shared set of common facts that were always operated around.”
On Thursday Facebook reported revenue of $US26.2 billion for the quarter, far beyond analysts expectations, sending share up six per cent in late trading.
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