The insatiable data-collecting vacuum that is the modern internet was not built for kids.
So Dylan Collins is trying to build another internet, one where children can click, browse and view ads without having a single piece of personal data collected.
Collins is the chief executive of SuperAwesome, a London-based tech company that is building kid-safe products for other companies, which are required to abide by a growing list data privacy of regulations.
“You really now need an entirely separate internet that is based around allowing children to remain anonymous,” Collins said.
The idea behind SuperAwesome may seem particularly timely considering the growing backlash against tech companies and their data practices, but when Collins pitched his startup to tech investors a few years ago, he was hammered with questions about the types of data he planned to collect on young users.
The answer — none — completely bucked the trend in Silicon Valley, where every piece of personal data and user behavior was the real product driving billions of dollars in revenue for companies like Facebook and Google.
“You feel like the crazy person because you're going around and you're saying, ‘Hey, we need to build the opposite of what everyone else is talking about,’” Collins said. “The challenge for companies like Google and Facebook is that, when they built and when they architected so many of their platforms, children just simply weren't a consideration.”
Today, SuperAwesome reaches more than 500 million unique users each month through its products, which include PopJam, a platform where developers can build experiences that allow kids to like, comment and share content, and Kids Web Services, which simplifies the process of building apps.
Another product, Kid Safe Filter, a firewall for third-party advertisements, was released earlier this month and ensures every digital ad is stripped of trackers, preventing third party advertisers from storing data without first knowing whether a child is involved.
With television viewing decreasing, Collins credits the shift to digital for SuperAwesome’s growth in the past year. The company said it projected to double its revenue in 2018 and has its sights set on going public in 2020. In February, a funding round valued the company at more than $100 million.
Collins said he expects the company to continue to grow as regulations continue to evolve.
“There's a huge amount of change that's going on,” he said. “All of our technology is not only providing compliance for today, but we're ensuring that they're going to be compliant tomorrow and next year and keeping up with the latest requirements.”
Monetizing ‘the internet of kids’
The number of children online increases by 175,000 every day, according to Unicef, and advertisers are taking notice. The children’s digital advertising market is expected to be worth $1.9 billion next year, according to the PwC Kids Digital Advertising Report.
By the time a child turns 13, advertising technology companies will have collected as much as 72 million data points about them, according to SuperAwesome data.
Collins said that the company has benefitted from growing public understanding of the internet and just what it can mean for kids who are spending time online.
“I think it’s certainly not the case that Google and Facebook are going to deliberately target children, or deliberately trying to capture all of their data,” Collins said. “But it’s definitely the case that clearly a new infrastructure, what we call a ‘Zero Data Infrastructure,’ is required to support children.”
But reaching those kids comes with a set of regulatory barriers, namely COPPA, the privacy regulation in the United States and the Europe’s GDPR-K, which was enacted earlier this year. Both laws are designed to put parents in control over what information is collected about their children and, in the absence of consent, prevent sites or apps from collecting data that could identify a person.
Lindsey Barrett, a teaching fellow and staff attorney at Georgetown Law’s Communications and Technology Clinic said that the laws don’t necessarily ensure compliance.
“Far too many companies turn a blind eye to the fact that advertisers claim to be complying with COPPA when they're not,” Barrett said. “I think the objective of building safer advertising products for kids is laudable, or at least certainly better than just hoping to fly under regulators' radar.”
SuperAwesome now has more than 300 brand partners, including Mattel, Hasbro, Nintendo and Warner Brothers, which rely on its products to ensure they’re complying with children’s privacy laws and are collecting zero data across apps, games, platforms and advertisements. And the company is also seeing returns from the advertisements they run, despite not collecting a single data point from the children who view them.
“There needed to be some sort of company to help both sides overcome that friction,” said Hussein Kanji, founding partner at Hoxton Ventures, a London-based firm that was an early investor in SuperAwesome.
SuperAwesome does that by offering companies a dashboard where they can get an aggregate view of how advertisements perform, without any individual data from the children they engaged.
“In comparison, let’s say, if you were running a campaign targeted at adults, you would be able to go in and literally track a person, in terms of, okay they clicked on an ad, then they went to this site, then they went to this site, then they went and spent some money on Amazon,” Collins said. “Our technology ensures that nobody can capture that kind of data on children.”
Taking on YouTube
SuperAwesome has also positioned itself as both a complement and an alternative to YouTube.
This year, the company released its own embeddable video player. It also created a SafeFam certification for YouTubers who create content geared toward children, allowing them to go through a voluntary certification process to receive a SafeFam badge they can post on their profile.
YouTube has had to put out a series of fires over the past two years, including the discovery of inappropriate content being marketed using kid-friendly keywords and concerns of inappropriate ads being matched with children’s content. Earlier this year, more than 20 advocacy groups signed a letter to the Federal Trade Commission alleging YouTube is in violation of COPPA.
“I wouldn't say we're growing based on their disadvantage, but I think certainly it is making parents much more cognizant of what is happening to children behind the scenes when they're online,” Collins said.