FTC Urged To Step Up Enforcement Of Children's Privacy Rules

Advocacy groups are urging the Federal Trade Commission to step up enforcement of a federal privacy law that prohibits website operators from knowingly collecting data from children younger than 13 without their parents' permission.

In comments filed with the agency Wednesday, 19 organizations say noncompliance with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act is “widespread.”

“The most important thing that the FTC could do to protect children’s privacy is to more aggressively enforce its existing rules,” the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Center for Digital Democracy, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Citizen and other groups write.

Their comments come in response to the agency's call for input about whether to modify the regulations that implement the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

“The FTC should do more to ensure that operators do not collect more information from a child than is reasonably necessary and require operators to protect the confidentiality, security, and integrity of personal information collected from children,” the advocates write.

“Even when the FTC does act, it takes a long time and the penalties are simply seen as the cost of doing business,” the organizations add, noting that the FTC has only brought 31 enforcement actions since the law went into effect 20 years ago.

The organizations point specifically to the FTC's recent record-breaking $170 million children's privacy settlement with Google as evidence that enforcement efforts have lagged. The FTC's complaint against Google, unveiled in September, alleged that the company knowingly collected data for behavioral advertising from YouTube viewers younger than 13 without their parents' consent.

“The FTC has long been aware that many channels on YouTube are directed to children,” the groups write. “Yet the FTC took no action until earlier this year.”

Among other requests, the advocacy groups are also urging the FTC to leave in place a policy that hinders companies from collecting data from adults who watch videos aimed at children.

Currently, the FTC presumes that people watching child-oriented videos are themselves children. That policy hinders companies like YouTube from collecting personal data from those viewers, including cookie-based data used to serve targeted ads.

Earlier this week Google argued to the FTC that adults sometimes watch material aimed at children, and that the company shouldn't be required to treat those viewers differently than other users over the age of 12.

But the watchdogs counter that web platforms can't reliably distinguish between adults and children who watch videos aimed at youngsters.

“Many children use general audience services via their parents’ devices, sometimes logged in to their parents’ accounts,” the groups write. “If the FTC were to permit general audience platforms to rely on user profiles to rebut the presumption that patrons of their child-directed offerings are children, it would lead to widespread mislabeling of children as adults and large numbers of under-protected children.”

The groups add that the FTC should obtain more information from tech companies before changing its policies.

“It is possible that some adults like to consume content specifically designed for preschoolers and babies,” the organizations write. “But until the Commission conducts ... studies that uncover industry data demonstrating how often adults consume children’s content and how general audience platforms are able to identify when a viewer of child-directed content is an adult, the FTC should not make changes to how general audience sites treat child-directed content.”

Andrew Smith, the head of the FTC's consumer protection bureau, said in September he anticipated the agency would revise at least some regulations.

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