FTC Strengthens Online Privacy Rules For ChildrenBy: Zach Walton - January 16, 2013
As has been documented many times before, us adults on the Internet really have no privacy. Advertisers want to know what we’re doing to sell us products, and the government wants to know what we’re doing in case we’re terrorists. Children, however, still enjoy quite a bit of privacy online, and new FTC rules are going to ensure they’re even more protected.
The Hill reports that the FTC has published a 169-page document detailing all the new rules that will be added to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act this year. The new rules represent the first major revision to the bill since its original passing in 1998. As expected, most of the additions have to deal with concerns that were not present last decade, like smartphones and social networks.
The FTC issued two major changes that will affect pretty much every service provider on the Internet that even remotely markets to children. The first is a definition change that files geolocation information under a child’s personal information. The change means that services can not track a child across various Web sites and other online services.
In the same vein, the second update extends privacy protections to modern Web applications apps, games and Web site plug-ins. The latter is the most interesting because some Web sites appeal to people both young and old. These plug-ins can be used to track the adults, but what about the children? How will a Web site know who’s a child and who isn’t?
The FTC’s response is that a Web site “whose primary target audience is children must continue to presume all users are children and to provide COPPA protections accordingly.” That’s easier said than done, however, in an age where social media is everywhere. Sure, children under the age of 13 can’t use Facebook, but some companies are concerned that they’ll be in violation of the new rules just by putting social share buttons on their Web site for teenagers or adults that visit the site.
Speaking of social media, social networks will probably be none too pleased that the new rules will be taking effect this year. Facebook has already been pretty vocal about its opposition to the new rules in a post from October of last year. The company took an especial offense to COPPA protections being extended to Web plug-ins. Here’s what Facebook had to say at the time:
As the Commission evaluates the further changes proposed in the Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“SNPRM”), Facebook encourages the Commission to develop policies that take into account the significant impediments that a revised COPPA Rule could create for innovation and the ecosystem that shapes students’ online experiences. This social functionality, widely used by educational sites and apps, is dependent on plugins and could be threatened by a COPPA Rule that renders plugin providers responsible for the actions and motives of third parties and vice versa. Part of the value of many educational sites and services is that they are offered for little or no cost, which means that they often will not have the resources to meet burdensome compliance obligations.
To be honest, both sides have a valid point in this fight. Children’s privacy should be protected online just as it off. That being said, those who offer a free service to children should be given a bit of leeway so they can keep providing that service without having to ask for payment in return.
Despite criticisms from advertising and social media groups, the FTC’s new rules for COPPA will go into effect on July 1. You can expect some companies to raise a stink about it between now and then, but it’s unlikely to sway any minds in Washington. The Hill notes that the new rules are one of the few things in Washington to receive bipartisan support.