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Updates to The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act?

The Federal Trade Commission has suggested updates to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA as it is commonly called. These updates would help the law keep pace with changes in technology, making it more difficult for third-party providers like app-developers and ad networks to collect information about children under the age of 13 without permission from their parents.

The FTC has been working on these update for more than a year, and the initial proposal received such a large number of comments that the Commission agreed to conduct an additional round of revisions. Comments for the latest proposed modifications were filed in September, and Washington Post reporter Cecilia Kang reported that the FTC aims to finalize the law by the end of the year.

As it stands now, the law only applies to web sites. The updates would clarify that it also applies to mobile services and social networks. When the law was drafted in 1998, no one could have predicted the extent of today's data-extracting tools, and while ubiquitous features such as Facebook's "like" button may seem innocuous, they are continuously collecting information about users – including children. The FTC acknowledged how the online landscape has changed in the proposal document.

The commission did not foresee how easy and commonplace it would become for child-directed sites and services to integrate social networking and other personal information-collection features in the content offered to their users, without maintaining ownership, control, or access to the personal data.

In layperson's terms, the FTC's suggested updates would not only apply to the data-collecting tools employed by children's sites, but also to mobile apps designed for children. They would also hold software platforms, like Apple's iOS or Google's Android, accountable for the practices of the apps that run on their devices. Platform providers, however, argue that they do not have the resources or ability to control the practices of apps.

According to Kang, Apple vice president Catherine Novelli specifically responded to this clause in comments opposing the updates. "Congress does not make department stores liable for the data collection practices of the companies that sell children's products in a department store," she said.

Many other industry leaders are less than thrilled at the proposed updates, and have released official statements urging the FTC to reconsider. Kang reported that Facebook found the modifications breached First Amendment rights, and Google said they would dramatically affect sites' ability to provide rich online content to children.

It's no surprise that large companies and advertisers are up in arms about potentially losing such a large demographic. After all, there are more than 7.5 million Facebook users under the age of 13, and tweens control an estimated $43 billion in annual spending, according to EPM Communications, Inc.

Privacy advocates, including ourselves, see things a bit differently, however. "It's a pathetic argument for the richest companies in the world to say they don't have the resources or ability to protect children," said our CEO Jim Steyer in an interview with The Washington Post.

The bottom line is that companies are collecting information about young children without their parents' knowledge or consent. While we understand that complete prevention of this is unlikely, the FTC COPPA updates will help hold companies accountable. The key is to find a balance between protecting privacy and monetization.

To help spread the word, we created an online petition to show the FTC that parents and educators support their push for updating COPPA. The petition is our best defense against the fierce opposition from industry lobbyists.

"The FTC's suggested updates to the COPPA rule are an important step toward balancing privacy concerns and the paramount rights of children and families while still encouraging the growth of innovation by the tech industry," said Steyer in a recent statement applauding the commission's push for regulation. "The digital world is constantly changing," he said, "but the goal of empowering parents to protect their children remains the same."

Kelsey Herron
Kelsey Herron is a freelance journalist for HiredPen Inc. She blogs regularly about national and local trends in technology and education for Common Sense Media.