FTC strengthens rules to protect children's online privacy

The Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday announced changes to strengthen privacy for children online.

Story highlights

  • Changes to children's privacy act target the collection of personal data by apps
  • Rules are intended to give parents more control over their children's information
  • Only 20% of apps explain what data are collected before download, FTC says

Recognizing that the "Internet of 2012 is vastly different from a decade ago," the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday announced changes to strengthen privacy for children online "in this ever-changing technological landscape."

The revisions to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, also known as the COPPA Rule, which was originally passed in 1998, will make it more difficult for children's personal data to be collected by mobile phone apps, smartphones and tablets. Parents will have greater control over the information that websites and online services can collect from children under 13.

Apps, or applications, are software programs that mobile phone users can purchase and install on their devices.

"The new COPPA rule captures the new online reality... and puts companies on notice that they must comply with the law," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference that he's been "stewing inside" about this issue for a while, and he warned that third parties will be held liable for personal information they collect from children. He said third parties also will be held liable "if they know they are collecting information on websites or apps directed toward children."

The FTC says one of the proposals will "close a loophole that allowed kid-directed apps and websites to permit third parties to collect personal information from children through plug-ins (software) without parental notice and consent."

"Parents should be the gatekeepers to decide whether others can collect information," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

A recent report by the FTC found that only 20 percent of the apps linked to general disclosure information or a privacy policy before the app was downloaded. Many of the apps shared certain information with third parties, such as device ID, geolocation or phone number without disclosing that fact to parents, the FTC said. Companies could potentially develop detailed profiles about children without a parent's knowledge or consent.

The commission will require 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."

Another amendment would "modify the list of 'personal information' that cannot be collected without parental notice and consent."

"FTC stands for something," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, a proponent for updated protection rules. "Today FTC stands for 'For The Children' across the country."

Common Sense Media, an organization that provides families with information about kids, media and technology, applauded the new regulations.

"These COPPA updates 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," said James Steyer, Common Sense Media CEO.

The amendments will go into effect on July 1, 2013.

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