Leading Children’s, Health, Consumer, and Privacy Groups Call on FTC to Update Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act [COPPA]
Rules Required for Behavioral Ads, Mobile Marketing and Video Game Targeting
Washington, DC: A broad coalition of child advocacy, health, consumer, and privacy groups is urging the Federal Trade Commission to update and clarify its children’s online privacy rules to ensure the continued effectiveness of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in the contemporary digital marketplace. In formal comments submitted to the Commission, the groups called for a number of specific changes in the COPPA rules designed to address the growth of mobile phones, interactive games, and more sophisticated tracking and targeting technologies. Among the seventeen groups jointly submitting the comments were: the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and the World Privacy Forum.
Congress enacted COPPA in 1998, with strong bipartisan support, in order to protect the online privacy of children under the age of 13. The FTC’s rules for implementing the law went into effect in 2000. This spring the Commission launched a comprehensive review of the rules, “in light of rapidly evolving technology and changes in the way children use and access the Internet.”
“For the past decade, COPPA has served as an effective safeguard for young consumers in the online marketing environment, establishing a clear set of rules of the road that have helped guide the development of children’s digital culture,” explained Prof. Kathryn C. Montgomery of American University, who led the campaign to enact the legislation during the 90s. “Though the law took effect in the early formative period of Internet marketing, it was purposely designed to adapt to changes in both technology and business practices, with periodic reviews by the FTC to keep the rules up-to-date. With the changes called for in these comments, COPPA will continue to ensure that children reap the benefits of the digital age without compromising their privacy, safety, and wellbeing.”
“The Commission should enact new rules for COPPA that draw upon its current investigations into behavioral marketing and other current digital advertising practices,” said Jeff Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “It's time for the FTC to do a better job of protecting the privacy of children online, especially given the dramatic growth of new techniques for tracking and targeting them through mobile phones, video games, and virtual worlds. This review of COPPA by the Commission is a test case for the agency.”
The groups asked the FTC to:
- Extend COPPA’s privacy protections to mobile phones, online gaming consoles, interactive television, and other new digital platforms that are increasingly used by marketers to track and target children.
- Update its definition of “personal information” to reflect contemporary marketing practices in which persistent cookies, IP addresses, geo-location data, and even seemingly anonymous combinations of data such as age, zip code, and gender can be used to identify and target individuals.
- Use the criteria developed for its 2008 report to Congress on food marketing to clarify the definition of websites and online services "directed at children” in the COPPA rule. These criteria include audience demographic data (i.e., when 20 percent or more of a site’s visitors are between the age of 2 and 12), and content characteristics (e.g., child-oriented, animated or licensed characters or celebrities highly popular with children; language such as “kid,” “child,” “tween,” or similar words; models or characters who appear to be younger than age 13.)
- Close the loopholes on when and how a website can contact children multiple times without obtaining parental consent, and to investigate whether some marketers are circumventing COPPA’s intent by using this exception to the rules to engage in ongoing data collection and personalized marketing.
- Require major websites, ad networks, social networks and other online service operators to periodically inform the FTC about their data collection practices.
- Investigate the efficacy of Safe Harbor programs and require operators to reapply for continued authorization.
Finally, the groups urged the FTC to develop a separate set of privacy protections for children 13 and older. Although adolescents’ use of and response to media may differ from that of their younger peers, teens are no less vulnerable to marketing, the comments explained: “Many teens go online to seek help for their personal problems, to explore their own sexual identities, to find support groups for handling emotional crises in their lives, and sometimes to talk about things they do not feel comfortable or safe discussing with their own parents. Yet, this increased reliance on the Internet subjects them to wholesale data collection and profiling.” Commenters made it clear that the COPPA model of parental consent would not be appropriate for adolescents. However, they did call for a set of Fair Information Practices for teens in line with those developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “Policy should focus on protecting data, and regulating data collection and use, rather than discouraging teens from participating online,” the groups argued.
In addition to the Center for Digital Democracy, the organizations filing the comments today included: the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Benton Foundation, Berkeley Media Studies Group, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Children Now, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Consumer Watchdog, National Consumers League, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Public Health Institute, U.S. PIRG, and World Privacy Forum. Prof. Angela Campbell and Guilherme Roschke at the Institute for Public Representation, Georgetown University Law Center, served as legal counsel.