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FTC changes privacy guidelines for developers of kids’ apps

The FTC made changes to the guidelines it sets for the developers of apps used by children. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The Federal Trade Commission made a few small but significant changes to the guidelines it issues to developers who make apps used by children. For parents, the changes could affect how you interact with apps you download for your kids.

The market for apps aimed at younger users is a lucrative one, particularly in the education world as more school districts use tablets in the classroom, but wading into the space requires a greater degree of concern for privacy. In the United States, there is a law aimed at protecting children's privacy online, aptly called the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA.

The FTC's changes to a list of guidelines for complying with the law, published Wednesday, all target parental consent, or how developers and app stores should reach out to parents to make sure they are aware of how their kids are using apps.

One change allows developers to verify the required parental consent in certain circumstances by using a credit or debit card number -- even if an app isn't charging parents for anything. Another says that developers can rely on the policies set down by app stores run by companies such as Apple, Google or Amazon to gain consent. But the new guidelines also make clear that if a developer does run afoul of those consent laws, the blame falls on that developer, not on whoever's selling the app.

The changes come just a week after the agency filed suit against Amazon, alleging that it was too easy for children to purchase items in apps without their parents' permission. (The FTC did not allege that Amazon, whose chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post,  had violated the children's privacy law in that complaint.)

The changes clear up some confusion for developers who have been wary about developing for kids, said Morgan Reed, executive director of ACT, a trade organization for app developers.  "With the Commission now providing a better explanation of the regulatory landscape, we expect innovation and investment in children’s education apps to grow markedly," he said in a statement.

Reed also said he thinks making it clear that app store operators won't be liable for individual app makers' mistakes will encourage those companies to make better policies for ensuring that parents have given their blessing to their children's mobile activities.

Jeffrey Chester, a privacy advocate who helped lead the initial push to pass COPPA, said the FTC must strike a balance between simplifying ways for developers to get parental consent and making it too easy for companies to collect data on children from those apps.

"We feel the FTC needs to do a much better job enforcing COPPA," Chester said. "Protecting privacy should be foremost on the commission's mind.  We'll review these changes very critically."

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.



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