House lawmakers on Wednesday debated proposed updates to the Children’s Online Private Protection rules, the government’s first effort to tweak 12-year-old laws to better apply to the proliferation of new mobile devices and Internet applications being used by children.
The House Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee debated recommendations by the Federal Trade Commission that Web firms be required to seek greater permissions from parents to collect information about children under the age of 13.
But even with bipartisan support over some privacy bills, it will be difficult to pass new laws this session of Congress, analysts say, as lawmakers focus on jobs and the economy.
The FTC has recommended rules that companies must first get parents’ permission to collect information on a child’s whereabouts, or geo-location — a practice widely used by Web giants Google, Facebook and other firms on mobile devices. The FTC also said Web sites should seek parental consent before tracking children online through cookies and other technologies for purposes outside the operations of the Web site. Parents would also have to give permission for the collection of photos and videos that identify a child, according to the FTC’s recommendation.
The FTC said last fall that it believes COPPA rules apply to mobile devices, social networks and mobile apps. That view encourages privacy advocates who said federal officials need to clarify the role of mobile devices, social networks and Internet-enabled gaming consoles under COPPA, a set of rules adopted in a time before the iPhone and Facebook.
“Developments are happening so quickly in the digital marketing industry that many of the new techniques may be escaping scrutiny,” said Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of communications at American University known for her contribution to the 1998 COPPA law, said in the hearing.
From 2004 to 2009, the amount of time children spent online increased from seven hours a week to more than 11 hours a week, according Nielsen research.
Among legislative proposals, one by Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Tex.) would prevent the tracking of children online. But some companies have balked that the law requires an eraser button for children’s information that would be difficult to pull off technologically.
Even as lawmakers, child privacy advocates and companies debated potential new rules, most agreed that the rush of children onto the Web presents anxieties for parents who find it difficult to navigate companies’ privacy and safety features.
Lawmakers evoked many of their own personal experiences as parents. One by one, they talked about their children’s use of iPhones, iPads and other Internet and mobile devices, and their personal concerns about safety and privacy online.
“I have no clue as to how I am empowered. I feel very unempowered,” said Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), when talking about his 10-year-old daughter, who may have access to an application downloaded by his 17-year-old son.
“The thing about television is that you can walk across the room and get a sense of the show,” Cassidy said. But on mobile applications, parents may think they have downloaded an application that looks age-appropriate, “but then it takes you places that look very different.”
The FTC’s proposals come amid growing consumer concerns about online privacy as users spend more and more time on Facebook, the world’s biggest social network. Apple, through its devices and iTunes stores, collects information about users’ buying habits and location. Google’s e-mail, search engine, video service and maps gather information about users to serve up tailored ads. And Amazon, with its entry into the tablet market, hopes to become a major gateway to digital media — adding to the reservoir of data it already has about retail customers.