FTC proposes tighter rules for kids' websites

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 7 2012 12:14 p.m. MDT

The Federal Trade Commission hopes new rules will protect users who are younger than 13.

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The Federal Trade Commission hopes to boost online privacy protections of young Web users — those under 13 — with a proposed update to the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act that includes expanding it to include third-party advertisers or applications that are available on sites.

The existing rules commonly referred to as COPPA, govern online collection, use and disclosure of children's personal information. It's not supposed to happen without parental consent, but there are gaps created by technology advances not foreseen when the rules were put in place. The proposal would further expand restrictions recommended last fall to close those gaps.

The Wall Street Journal predicted that the rules would affect "popular features such as Facebook's 'Like' button, as well as new social networks for playing games on smartphones."

COPPA already requires online companies to let parents know their information-collecting policies and it requires parental consent if the user is younger than 13. "But the law, which took effect in 2000 — four years before the start-up of Facebook — did not envision the now common practice of including add-ons on children's sites," wrote Edward Wyatt of The New York Times.

"The proposal would close an apparent or possible loophole in the rule," Mary K. Engle, associate director of advertising practices at the FTC, told the Times.

Under the proposed changes, both the host website and third parties would be responsible if data was collected in ways that the COPPA doesn't allow.

Right now, websites that are designed to appeal to people of different ages are required to treat all users as if they were under age 13. Under the proposal, mixed-audience websites can begin to screen visitors so the rules would only apply to those under 13. Sites, however, that primarily provide services to the younger crowd would still be required to treat all users as children when it comes to privacy protections.

A number of social media sites, including Facebook, were created for an older audience and even restrict access to those under age 13, but most acknowledge that children may lie about their ages to obtain an account, sometimes with parental consent.

"In a comment to the commission addressing the changes proposed last year, Facebook said that it had tiered screening, including 'technical checks at sign-up, social verifications and reports from our community to help identify child accounts,' which were deleted once they are identified," Wyatt wrote.

Facebook is considering allowing younger users to create legitimate accounts.

A number of consumer groups, including Consumers Union, have spoken in favor of the updated FTC rules, while many online companies and advertisers have spoken against them. Facebook, for instance, asked that its "Like" button be exempted from the rules.

"Data gathered by such software isn't used to target ads based on users' behavior,’" the social media site was quoted in the Journal article. "Exempting the software from COPPA, Facebook said, 'would create more legal certainty for operators and facilitate the development of innovative, engaging online content for teens.’"

The FTC proposal also changes the definition of "personal information" to decree that "a personal identifier will be considered personal information where it can be used to recognize a user over time or across different sites or services" or when it is used for anything besides support of internal operations.

The Wall Street Journal article noted that its investigation in 2010 found that "popular children's websites installed more data-gathering technology on computers than websites aimed at adults."

Public comments on the proposed rule changes are being accepted until September 10.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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