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A pan-societal coalition coordinated by Global Action Plan (Gap) is pressurising Facebook and Google to cease targeting advertising toward under-18s with the publication of an open letter accusing both firms of profiling teenagers to sell targeted products – in breach of their privacy rights.

What do campaigners want?

  • The letter makes uncomfortable reading for its recipients, arriving days after a £2.5bn lawsuit against Google for illegally data mining 5 million YouTube users in the UK aged under 13 for advertising purposes.

  • Among 23 signatories to the letter is Duncan McCann, the representative claimant in that lawsuit, who is also joined by Caroline Lucas MP and Friends of the Earth.

  • They reiterate that any firm that is processing the data of anyone under 13 for advertising purposes is breaking UK and EU law.

  • Pushing one step further, the coalition is also demanding that targetted ’behavioural’ ads are also banned for a broader group aged up to 18 years.

  • It is argued that collecting identifying data such as browser history, location and personal information ’undermines children’s privacy’ and plays on the susceptibility of the demographic to marketing messages.

  • Gap’s ’Stop Targeted Advertising to Kids’ campaign contends that online behavioural advertising is fuelling rampant consumerism – to the detriment of individual wellbeing and the planet.

  • At heart, the group wants existing protections enshrined in British and European law to be fully enforced in order to avoid a situation such as that in the US where adtech firms are said to hold 72m data points on a child by the time they turn 13.

What are social networks already doing to protect kids?

  • Restrictions on targetting teenagers with alcohol and gambling ads are already strictly enforced, but Gap wants this extended to a blanket ban on all advertising.

  • Oliver Hayes, policy and campaigns lead at Gap, said: ”The problem isn’t just age-inappropriate ads. It’s that targeted ads are inherently exploitative and manipulative, regardless of content.”

  • Just this month the UK Information Commissioner’s Office introduced new standards to persuade companies to switch off profiling of under-18s by default.

  • Dismissing the letter, a YouTube spokesperson said: ”YouTube is not for children under the age of 13. We launched the YouTube Kids app as a dedicated destination for kids and are always working to better protect kids and families on YouTube.”

  • YouTube Kids was created specifically to avoid targeted advertising, with all videos labelled as ’Made for Kids’ on the main site also excluded from personalised adverts.

  • Google also stresses that it does not permit targetting ads at users below the age of 13, with targetting only becoming an option for the 18-24 bracket.

  • Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Facebook – also named and shamed in the letter – have yet to respond.