Regulations from the late '90s designed to protect children's privacy were finally updated by the Federal Trade Commission to take into account the use of smartphones, apps and browser plugins.
After a two-year review, the Federal Trade Commission has released its updated regulations based on the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which applies to kids under age 13. The FTC aimed to bring its rules for companies that cater to children online up to date with technology.
In 1998, Apple introduced its first iMac, Google launched its search engine, and Congress passed COPPA to protect the privacy of the Internet's youngest users by preventing websites from collecting their personal information without their parents' consent. Since then, social media, smartphones and location-based data have become part of the grade-school lexicon.
The FTC has extended its regulations beyond websites to now also cover mobile devices, apps and browser plug-ins, to give parents control over how their children's personal information can be shared and collected. As with websites, parents must now be notified and give their consent before a company can collect personal information about their children.
The FTC also expanded the definition of personal information, which will include geolocation data, photos, audio files and videos. None of these items (along with text-based data like a child's name, which was already included in the old rule) can be collected by a website or other entity such as an ad network, without notifying a parent and getting consent.
However, this notify-and-consent requirement does not apply to what the FTC calls platforms, such as Apple's App Store and Google Play, that include apps for kids. In these cases, the app companies themselves will be responsible for getting permission from parents.
Further, personal information also extends to device-identifying data, such as an IP address sent from a computer and the ID number associated with a mobile phone. The FTC classifies this type of data as "persistent identifiers," subject to the same restrictions as a child's photo.
However, persistent identifiers may be collected by a company as long as they are not tied to the identity of a child, meaning ads can't be shown to an individual because they live in a particular town, which was identified by their IP address, for example.
The FTC has also broadened the ways a company can get verifiable parental consent, which include electronic scans of signed parental consent forms and video conferencing. Previously, the FTC allowed a phone call and what it calls email+ -- in which an email could constitute consent if it was verified with a phone call or with a follow-up email from the company that was later confirmed by the parent.
While these changes are designed to increase parental control, one change seems at odds with the rest. The update allows children to participate in interactive communities without parental consent, so long as the service providers "take reasonable measures to delete all or virtually all children's personal information before it is made public." This change removes parental permission for children's websites that don't collect personal data, which means parents won't be able to rely on receiving a request from these sites before their kids can use them.
The new regulations won't go into effect until July 1, 2013. And already, app makers and other companies such as data collection firms are saying that the new rules are unfair and will be far too expensive to implement.
Further, a new privacy law is under consideration by the Congress that would provide similar protections for all app users, young and old alike. The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that would require app developers to obtain users' opt-in consent before collecting or disclosing their geolocation data.
It would also prohibit companies from tracking individuals via mobile phones without their explicit consent. This would require apps or software to remind users that they are being tracked and give them a mechanism to stop the tracking. The bill will likely come before the full Senate next year.
Ogden-based TopTenREVIEWS.com guides consumers by comparing products in the world of technology, including electronics, software and Web services. Have a question? Email Leslie Meredith at firstname.lastname@example.org.