Democrats Urge FTC To Probe Google, Developers And Advertisers Over Children's Privacy

A recent report outlining possible violations of children's privacy laws has spurred two Senate Democrats to seek a Federal Trade Commission investigation of app developers, ad companies and app stores like Google Play.

“Given the sensitive nature of children’s personal information, app developers, advertising companies, and companies with app stores must take responsible steps to protect kids’ privacy and comply with COPPA,” Senators Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) write in a letter sent to the FTC Wednesday. COPPA, which stands for Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, requires companies to obtain parental consent before collecting a host of data -- including geolocation information and unique identifiers -- from children younger than 13.

“Also of concern is the practice of apps being improperly promoted as kid friendly when in fact the app engages in activity prohibited by COPPA,” the lawmakers write.

In their letter, Markey and Blumenthal reference the University of California, Berkeley study "Won't Somebody Think of the Children?' Examining COPPA Compliance at Scale," which concluded that thousands of popular free children's apps may have violated COPPA. Researchers for that study examined data practices of more than 5,800 Android apps for children available on the “Designed for Families” section of Google Play; 28% of those apps were found to access sensitive data such as geolocation information, email addresses and phone numbers.

Google says it requires developers of apps in the Designed for Families program to certify compliance with children's privacy laws.

Markey and Blumenthal now are asking FTC to investigate app developers' data collection practices, as well as data practices of ad companies -- including whether ad companies are policing developers, and what ad companies do with personal information they receive about children. The lawmakers also want an investigation into how app stores like Google Play verify that supposedly family-friendly apps comply with children's privacy laws.

The lawmakers aren't the only officials challenging tech companies over children's privacy. Last month, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has sued mobile game developer Tiny Lab Productions, Google, Twitter and other tech companies, for allegedly violating children's privacy laws. Tiny Lab Productions is among the app developers that allegedly collected personal data from children, according to the Berkeley study.

The complaint in that case alleges that Google duped parents by allowing Tiny Lab's gaming apps to participate in Google Play's "Designed for Families" program.

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