F.T.C. Updates Online Privacy Regulations For Kids

Your child's privacy might be better protected online.

Aug. 3, 2012 -- Thanks to new rules proposed on Wednesday by the Federal Trade Commission, your child's privacy might be better protected online.

That's the goal of the F.T.C., which is updating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA), which mandates that website and online service operators acquire verifiable parental consent before they use, collect or disclose any personal information about children under 13.

The main reason for the update is because of technology, which has changed dramatically since COPPA became effective in 2000. Smartphones, Facebook and Twitter, after all, were not in existence back then.

"We're trying to make sure that the COPPA rule protects children online and that the information they provide is keeping up with technology and kids' use of social media," said Mary J. Engle, associate director of advertising practices at the F.T.C.

The proposed new rules will strengthen COPPA's reach to include mobile devices. It will also make sure websites and third-party data brokers, advertising networks and downloadable software kits ("plug-ins") get parental permission before gathering personal information from children (currently, COPPA only applies to website operators, not third parties). The new regulations also expand the meaning of "personally identifiable information" to include IP addresses and cookies, which track data.

Other adjustments in the proposed rules address websites that are used by both children and adults. Currently, COPPA treats all website visitors as being under 13. The new rule would allow a website that attracts both children and adults to apply privacy protections only to those who say they are under 13. However, sites that are aimed specifically at children must continue to treat all users as if they are under 13, even if the other users are older.

COPPA is the reason that children under 13 are not allowed on Facebook, although that may be changing if Facebook opens to younger users. Until that happens, the proposed rules won't directly apply to the Facebook website, though they will apply to websites targeting children that allow them to "like" a certain product or person through Facebook.

The new rules have been in the making for a few years. In September 2010, the F.T.C solicited the public for comments on how COPPA might be updated, and a year later released its recommendations. It then opened that up to the public and received 350 comments. The agency will now open up another round for public comment until Sept. 10 before making final recommendations by the end of the year.

"We think we need to amend the rule to close some loopholes and make sure that all the different players that are actually collecting children's information are getting parental permission before collecting it," said Engle.