Congress starts asking questions about Disney's NextGen reservation system
Published: January 25, 2013 at 11:17 AM
U.S. Rep Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has sent a letter to Disney CEO Bob Iger, asking questions about Disney's new MagicBands and their use, particularly regarding children and privacy.
I think some perspective might be helpful before anyone reacts to this story, one way or the other.
Using an interactive element in the queue of the Haunted Mansion at Disney World's Magic Kingdom. Interactive queues, the new FastPass+ and MyMagic+ are all part of Disney's billion-dollar-plus "NextGen" initiative.
First, I believe it is entirely appropriate for lawmakers to be asking questions about new technology and its application in business. The last thing any of us should want is for legislators to make laws (or fail to make laws) in ignorance. They should be learning about new tech, and if it takes a letter to a corporate CEO to start that process, so be it. I also believe that it is entirely appropriate for our elected representatives to create laws that set ground rules about the application of technology, to ensure that it is not used to damage or destroy the quality of our lives. (And if we don't like the way our representatives are doing that, the solution is to elect different representatives, not to say that lawmakers should quit making laws.)
Also, keep in mind that lawmakers (and reporters!) often know the answers to the questions they ask. They're simply looking to get the person they're questioning "on the record" with a response. (I should note that Rep. Markey's office has helped get information for Theme Park Insider in the past, especially with the Accident Watch feature we started back in 2001.)
There's a federal law, called the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, that prohibits businesses from collecting personal information online about children under age 13, without their parents' consent. That's why website registration forms almost always include a line saying "You must be 13 years of age or older to register" or something like that. Does COPPA apply to My Magic+? That's a fair question -- it uses wireless technology that might (or might not) be transmitted over the Internet, and there's definitely an online registration element to the system. If parents are compelled to give up their kids' identity and personal info to get access to Disney attractions, the government might choose to argue that's a violation of COPPA, as Disney would be taking away something it previously offered kids in retaliation for their parents not giving up their personal information. (FWIW, I think continued standby lines provide Disney an easy "out" here.)
That said, as a parent, I want full control of how my children use their Disney wristbands. I don't want Disney making decisions for me about my kids using charging privileges, and such, based on arbitrary age cut-offs. Let me decide. The spirit of COPPA was to give us parents that control for our children under 13. It's appropriate for members of Congress to defend that.
Two more thoughts, about privacy. First, about the use of personal information for marketing purposes. The big fear seems to be that companies are collecting all this information about what we do, write and share in order to send us more ads. It's true that companies crave information about consumers, but having worked with many advertisers over the years as a news publisher, I think it's worth noting that the primary aim of microtargeted ads is to stop sending advertisements to people who don't want them. Companies want to stop wasting their money buying ads seen by people who aren't ever going to buy the company's stuff. When microtargeting works, you get fewer ads you don't care about, not more. So the whole "advertisers are collecting information about you!" thing's pretty much a non-starter for me.
It's the non-marketing use of my personal information that worries me. And that's my second thought. I want some assurance that anyone tracking my day in a theme park has locked down access to that information so that it can't be used for any purpose beyond what I and the theme park have intended. Here's an example: A cast member sees a cute guest during the day, then logs into the park's reservation system to find out where that guest will be going in the park later in the day, in order to stalk him/her. That's creepy and potentially dangerous and I'm totally cool with Congress tightening laws to try to prevent that from happening.
So I hope that Rep. Markey's questions lead to some honest answers from Disney and show that the company's done the planning necessary to prevent problems with MyMagic+, FastPass+ and all of its NextGen initiative. This is some really neat technology that creates the potential to make theme park vacations into even more fun and engaging experiences. If Disney (or any other theme park company) is going to take this step, they ought to do it right.