The FTC Did Some Kid-ding Around in 2014

by McDermott Will & Emery
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2014 was a busy year for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).  The FTC announced something new under COPPA nearly every month, including:

  • In January, the FTC issued an updated version of the free consumer guide, “Net Cetera:  Chatting with Kids About Being Online.”  Updates to the guide include advice on mobile apps, using public WiFi securely, and how to recognize text message spam, as well as details about recent changes to COPPA.
  • In February, the FTC approved the kidSAFE Safe Harbor Program.  The kidSAFE certification and seal of approval program helps children-friendly digital services comply with COPPA.  To qualify for a kidSAFE seal, digital operators must build safety protections and controls into any interactive community features; post rules and educational information about online safety; have procedures for handling safety issues and complaints; give parents basic safety controls over their child’s activities; and ensure all content, advertising and marketing is age-appropriate.
  • In March, the FTC filed an amicus brief in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the ruling of U.S. District  Court for the Northern District of California in Batman v. Facebook that COPPA preempts state law protections for the online activities of teenagers children outside of COPPA’ coverage is “patently wrong.”
  • In April, the FTC updated its “Complying with COPPA:  Frequently Asked Questions” (aka the COPPA FAQs) to address how COPPA applies in the school setting.  In FAQ M.2, the FTC discussed whether a school can provide the COPPA-required consent on behalf of parents, stating that “Where a school has contracted with an operator to collect personal information from students for the use and benefit of the school, and for no other commercial purpose, the operator is not required to obtain consent directly from parents, and can presume that the school’s authorization for the collection of students’ personal information is based upon the school having obtained the parents’ consent.”  But, the FTC also recommends as “best practice” that schools provide parents with information about the operators to which it has consented on behalf of the parents.  The FTC requires that the school investigate the collection, use, sharing, retention, security and disposal practices with respect to personal information collected from its students.
  • In July, COPPA FAQ H.5, FAQ H.10, and FAQ H.16 about parental consent verification also were updated.  In FAQ H.5, the FTC indicates that “collecting a 16-digit credit or debit card number alone” is not sufficient as a parental consent mechanism, in some circumstances, “collection of the card number – in conjunction with implementing other safeguards – would suffice.”  Revised FAQ H.10 indicates that a developer of a child-directed app may use a third party for parental verification “as long as [developers] ensure that COPPA requirements are being met,” including the requirement to “provide parents with a direct notice outlining [the developer’s] information collection practices before the parent provides his or her consent.” In revised FAQ H.16, the FTC addresses whether an app store operator that offers a verifiable parental consent mechanism is exposed to liability under COPPA.  Since an app store operator does not qualify as an “operator” under COPPA, the app store is not liable under COPPA “for failing to investigate the privacy practices of the operators for whom [they] obtain consent,” but could be liable under the FTC Act for false or deceptive practices.
  • In August, the FTC approved the Internet Keep Safe Coalition (iKeepSafe) program as a safe harbor oversight program. The FTC also called for public comments on AgeCheq, Inc.’s parental verification method, which sought to verify parental identity via a financial transaction or a hand-signed declaration.  The FTC subsequently rejected the proposed method in November because these methods have already been recognized as valid means of obtaining verifiable parental consent under COPPA and emphasized that companies are free to develop common consent mechanisms without Commission approval.
  • In September, Yelp was fined $450,000 for failing to comply with COPPA.  (See our blog post here).  Also in September, TinyCo (the developer of Tiny Pets, Tiny Zoo, Tiny Village, Tiny Monsters and Mermaid Resort) was fined $300,000 for collecting children’s email addresses, in exchange for in-game bonuses, without parental consent in violation of COPPA.
  • In November, AgeCheq, Inc. proposed a second parental consent verification method to ensure COPPA compliance.  The second proposed method consisted of a device-signed parental consent form with a multi-step method requiring entry of a code sent by text message to a mobile device. The Center for Digital Democracy urged the FTC to reject AgeCheq’s method in comments filed on December 29, 2014.  On January 29, 2015, the FTC announced its rejection of AgeCheq’s second proposed parental verification method.
  • In December, the FTC warned BabyBus, a China-based children’s app developer, that its apparent collection of user geolocation information may violate COPPA if (i) user geolocation information is indeed being collected and (ii) if the company does not get parents’ consent before collection the information from children under age 13.  The FTC noted that “COPPA and its related rules apply to foreign-based Web sites and online services that are involved in commerce in the United States.”

Given California’s new student privacy law, Student Online Personal Information Protection Act (effective January 1, 2016), and the recent increased focus on student privacy resulting from President Obama’s announcement about the Student Privacy Act, we expect that 2015 also will be an active year for children’s privacy.  Stay tuned!

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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