Senators Urge FTC Not To Weaken Children's Privacy Rules

Four U.S. senators are urging the Federal Trade Commission to avoid weakening children's privacy rules in ways that would make it easier for tech companies to serve targeted ads.

“Now is not the time to pull back,” Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) say in a letter sent Friday to the FTC. “As children's use of technology continues to increase, so too does the appetite by tech giants for children's personal information.”

The letter comes in advance of the FTC's planned Monday workshop on potential changes to regulations implementing the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. That law prohibits website operators from knowingly collecting personal information -- including web-browsing data used for targeted advertising -- from children under 13, without their parents' consent.

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In July, the FTC initiated a review of the rules by requesting comments from the public. The new review is taking place just six years after the last major overhaul of the regulations. The agency usually reviews the children's privacy regulations once every 10 years, but said it's moving faster due to “rapid changes in technology, including the expanded use of education technology.”

In its request for comments, the FTC asked about a rule change that would allow platforms like YouTube to collect data from users ages 13 and older who watch videos aimed at younger children.

Specifically, the agency asked whether platforms “that identify and police child-directed content” should “be able to rebut the presumption that all users of the child-directed third-party content are children thereby allowing the platform to treat under and over age 13 users differently.”

The lawmakers express concerns in their letter that the FTC is “at risk of favoring the interests of giant tech companies over the interests of parents and children.”

Markey and the others say they agree the regulations should be updated, but are “concerned that the FTC is choosing to update the rule at a time when the Commission appears insufficiently appreciative of the threat some giant tech companies pose to children and parents.”

Last month, Andrew Smith, the head of the FTC's consumer protection bureau said he anticipated the agency would revise the regulations. Speaking at the annual conference of the National Advertising Division, a unit administered by the Better Business Bureau, Smith said the agency has “heard that the inability to engage in interest-based advertising on YouTube is going to hurt content creators.”

The lawmakers cite Smith's recent comments as one reason for their concern.

“An FTC official suggested that limiting targeted advertising could impact the quality and amount of child-directed content -- a statement that appears to reveal troubling disregard for the core mission of COPPA: safeguarding kids' privacy.”

The senators also say the FTC's recent settlement with YouTube, which requires the company to pay $170 million, is cause for concern.

“That monetary penalty provided almost no deterrence value at all and was not paired with sufficient structural injunctions to prevent future violations by Google,” the lawmakers write. The settlement resolved allegations that YouTube collected data from viewers of videos that appeared on channels aimed at children.

The lawmakers add that “corporate interests” shouldn't be “an excuse for expansive and unfounded exemptions” to children's privacy rules. 

“Countless companies have succeeded in developing profitable, COPPA-complaint models of business,” they write. “As the FTC considers COPPA and broader privacy reforms, we urge you to prioritize enhancing protections for kids, not advancing the interests of data collectors.”

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