A bipartisan group of U.S. senators is urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate how media and tech companies, including those involved in distance learning, collect and process data about children.
“Children are a uniquely vulnerable population,” the lawmakers write in a letter sent Friday to the five agency commissioners. The letter was signed by Sens. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), Josh Hawley (R-Missouri), Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana), Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee).
They write that online platforms and software “have become integral to American education” as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, but contend that many educational technology services have inconsistent privacy and security standards. The lawmakers specifically reference a 2019 report by Common Sense Media, which found that 38% of the 100 most popular educational apps and services indicated they may use children's information for third-party marketing.
Markey and the others also note that the pandemic has resulted in children spending more time watching online videos, which the lawmakers say could pose privacy risks.
“Where children's privacy is concerned, the coronavirus pandemic has transformed more than just ed tech: it has also changed children's entertainment -- along with the market to push advertisements and products to young people,” they write.
“Brands are eager to connect with consumers at young ages,” they add. “This steep demand for children's attention online comes with a steep demand for their personal information.”
Markey and the others are asking the FTC to use its subpoena power to demand a host of detailed information about tech companies' data practices, including what the companies collect from children and teens, how companies collect and process biometric data, and whether the companies have suffered data breaches.
The Federal Trade Commission is currently considering whether to revise regulations that implement the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. That law generally prohibits website operators from knowingly collecting personal information -- including web-browsing data used for targeted advertising -- from children under 13, without their parents' consent. The FTC says schools can consent in lieu of parents, in educational contexts, but only if the information is used for a school-authorized educational purpose.
Markey and the other senators say the agency “should take extreme caution not to weaken” that law's protections.