FTC studies rules to curb collection of online data on children

August 1, 2012

The Federal Trade Commission said Wednesday that it is considering online privacy rules that would make it harder for advertisers and social networks to collect information about children without permission from parents.

The FTC said its proposed rules would require ad networks, social networks and other third-party partners of Web sites to ask parents for permission to collect information about users 12 years old or younger.

Currently, a Web site such as Disney.com is required to ask a parent’s permission when collecting personal identifiable information such as e-mail addresses and names.

But vague language in the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act could allow companies supplying online ads — or even Facebook and Twitter which sometimes appear as little icons on Web sites — to avoid the parental consent process.

The consumer protection agency said it would take comments on the proposal for 30 days and then vote on them as part of a bigger overhaul of COPPA rules expected by the end of the year.

The revision of child privacy laws comes as the number of tablets and smartphones have exploded within households, and as children are increasingly playing games or accessing the Web through these gadgets. Some apps are aimed at two-year-olds.

The FTC said in its proposal that the 1998 COPPA law “did not foresee how easy and commonplace it would become for child-directed services to integrate social networking and other personal information collection features into the content offered to their users, without maintaining ownership, control, or access to the personal data.”

“Given these changes in technology the Commission now believes that an operator of a child-directed site or service that chooses to integrate into a site or service other services that collect personal information from its visitors should be considered a covered operator under the rule,” the FTC wrote in its notice.

Consumer privacy advocates have pushed for stronger rules than what has been drafted for vote by the FTC.

They say advertisers can avoid the advertising limits on children by attaching themselves to youth-oriented sites without clearly notifying parents.

“Today, the FTC took a giant step to protect children’s privacy by proposing that the online data broker industry be required to comply to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy advocacy group. “The commission will also rein in the data brokers targeting kids who use social media, so-called ‘plug-ins,’ to gather information on a child and their friends.”

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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