COPPA: Online Privacy And Safety Needed For Children
August 2, 2012

COPPA: Stringent Rules Needed To Guard Children’s Online Privacy And Safety

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

The Internet has been attributed as “a brave new world” in the past. With this theme, government officials are working to make the web safer for families. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently stated that it would propose more stringent standards to safeguard the privacy and data of children who utilize the Internet.

In particular, the government agency publicized a proposal that detailed expanding privacy rules to website operators, “plug-ins,” and third-party applications found on mobile phones or social networks. The changes would apply to the Children´s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA), which lays out a number of regulations that ultimately require parental permission before websites can collect personal data from children and allow parents to stop the sites from sharing the information with other groups. It also makes it difficult for advertisers to market to children based on past online behavior.

"This change would make clear that an operator of a child-directed site or service that chooses to integrate the services of others that collect personal information from its visitors should itself be considered a covered 'operator' under the rule," the FTC wrote in the prepared statement.

With the changes, websites targeting children would have to change the way that they approach visitors. PC World reports that the existing rule stipulates that sites treat all visitors as if they were 13 years of age or younger. The new rule would give websites the right to screen visitors by age and also offer more privacy protections to children. The FTC maintained that sites or services that are already aimed at children or have children, as their main audience should still treat all users as children.

"The FTC's recommendations are crucial steps toward keeping the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act up-to-date in a rapidly changing online and mobile world," commented James Steyer, CEO and Founder of Common Sense Media, in a statement to PC World. "The digital world is constantly changing, but the goal of empowering parents to protect their children remains the same."

According to the AFP news agency, the announcement of the proposal by the FTC follows news that Facebook is developing technology that would allow children 13 years of age and younger to utilize the social network along with parental supervision. Facebook currently only allows users who are at least 13, but it´s difficult for the company to enforce the rule as many children lie about their age and create accounts on the social networking site.

In 2010, the Wall Street Journal also conducted an investigation on children´s websites. The publication discovered that the websites had more data-gathering technology on computers than websites that were geared towards adults.

"Now everybody's got a computer in their pocket," Mary Engle, head of the FTC's advertising practices division, told the Wall Street Journal. "There are so many more opportunities for kids to provide information online."

Researchers have also found that it is difficult to enforce this kind of law.

“There are a lot more gray areas where it is difficult to enforce," noted Lorrie Faith Cranor, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University on online privacy, in the Wall Street Journal article. "Some more guidance would be helpful."

The FTC focuses on preventing deceptive, fraudulent, and unfair business practices for consumers. In this regard, the FTC is open to public comments regarding the new rule as the proposals by the agency differ from proposals that were made last September. Public comments can be made until September 10, 2012 and can be made electronically.