Online Privacy Protection for Kids Strengthened

December 19th, 2012

Privacy advocates are applauding the FTC‘s move to strengthen parents’ control over what personal information apps and online companies can collect from children under the age of 13.

The agency, with a nod to the fast changing technology environment and a privacy regulation that dated back to before the advent of Facebook, Instagram, and Angry Birds, approved modifications in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) that, among other things, includes geolocation information, photos, and videos among the personal information that sites can not collect without parental approval.

The approval of the new rules comes after the agency released a report  that found that many apps for children shared kids’ information with third parties without disclosing these practices to parents. The report concluded that industry initiatives to increase transparency on what information is gathered and disclosed had fallen short.

Staff found little or no improvement in the disclosures made and, worse, a significant discrepancy between the privacy disclosures and the actual practices of the surveyed apps.

A few days after the FTC released the COPPA changes, Google and Viacom Inc. were hit with six privacy class-action lawsuits accusing the companies of placing cookies on computers that allowed them to track the Internet activity of minors. The suits allege that the companies unlawfully tracked the viewing activities of children under 13 on sites such as Nick.com in order to send targeted ads to them.

The changes also come amidst outrage by privacy advocates over a proposed change in terms of service for the popular photo sharing app Instagram that would allow users’ photographs and identity to be used in advertisements starting Jan. 16, 2013.  Instagram, which was purchased by Facebook in April 2012  for about $1 billion in cash and stock, later clarified the new terms in a blog by co-founder Kevin Systrom in which he said:

The language we proposed also raised question[s] about whether your photos can be part of an advertisement. We do not have plans for anything like this and because of that we’re going to remove the language that raised the question.

When users were still unsatisfied, Instagram announced the company would revert to its previous terms of service where advertising was concerned. Systrom wrote in a company blog:

Rather than obtain permission from you to introduce possible advertising products we have not yet developed we are going to take the time to complete our plans, and then come back to our users and explain how we would like for our advertising business to work.

The FTC started a review of the COPPA rule, which took effect in 2000, in 2010 The last time the agency had reviewed the rule was in 2005 but it didn’t make any changes to it at that time.

The changes announced Dec. 19, 2012 by the FTC  include:

  • closing a loophole that allowed kids-directed apps and websites to permit third parties to collect personal information from children through plug-ins without parental notice and consent.
  • requiring third parties to comply with COPPA.
  • requiring that website operators and online service providers take reasonable steps to release children’s personal information only to companies that are capable of keeping it secure and confidential.

The revisions also add several new methods that sites can use to obtain verifiable parental consent, including electronic scans of signed parental consent forms, video-conferencing, and alternative payment systems, such as debit cards.

James Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, said the COPPA changes

will provide a stern reminder to companies and developers that they need to do more to build a trustworthy online space for kids and families, and ensure that kids can benefit from tech innovation without exploitation.

For more information on the changes click here.

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Established in 1914 under President Woodrow Wilson, the FTC is the United States government’s primary regulatory authority in the area of consumer protection and anti-competitive business practices in the marketplace. Its Bureau of Consumer Protection assumes the lead in the Commission’s efforts to eliminate deceptive advertising and fraudulent business practices at work in the economy.

Data that can be used to identify you, like your name, address, birth date, or Social Security number

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act; it gives parents control over what information websites can collect from their kids under 13

A software component that customizes or adds features to the original application.

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