Privacy Advocates Blast Proposed Change to Child Privacy Law
Privacy advocates are calling on the Federal Trade Commission to reject a proposal first offered by the Walt Disney Company that would change how companies comply with a 1998 law requiring websites directed at children to obtain parental consent before collecting personal information from child users.
In comments filed by Monday's midnight deadline, a coalition of privacy and public interest groups voiced concern with a proposal made by Disney during the first round of comments on proposed revisions to the rule implementing the 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. Last year, the FTC proposed updating the rule to reflect changes in technology and the different ways children access online information.
The law bars online sites or services "directed at children" from collecting personal information from children under 13 without first obtaining their parents' consent.
In its filing late last year on the first set of revisions to COPPA proposed by the FTC, Disney, which operates cable channels and websites popular with children, called on the commission to loosen its definition of a website "directed at children." The company proposed creating a "family-friendly" classification for some websites that would recognize that not all of visitors to sites currently classified as "directed at children" are children.
Under Disney's proposal, the COPPA requirements would only kick in for "family-friendly" sites when such a site is dealing with children under 13. In that situation, the site would either not collect personal data from the child or would have to obtain parental consent. The company argued that if the FTC moves forward with more strict definitions of personal data and other changes to COPPA, older children may seek out better online experiences on websites directed at broader audiences that do not provide the same level of privacy protections.
The proposal would provide "a rational path for the development of family-friendly, privacy-protective Internet content and services, which would in turn encourage greater investment in family-friendly services such as premium content incorporated into a family-oriented service," Disney said in its December 2011 comments. "The resulting increase in family-friendly options would provide greater privacy protection to children by giving them more appropriate online outlets than are available today."
The FTC appears to be open to the proposal. In additional changes it proposed in August to COPPA, the FTC called for allowing a website or online service "that is designed for both children and a broader audience to comply with COPPA without having to treat all its users as children."
In a filing on this latest proposed change to COPPA, the Center for Digital Democracy, which filed comments on behalf of several privacy and public interest groups such as Consumers Union and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, argued that children would have less protection online if this change is implemented. Jeff Chester, the Center for Digital Democracy's executive director, said if the FTC makes the change to COPPA, "all of sudden a clearly targeted-to-children site ... would no longer have to implement COPPA throughout the site."
Given this, Chester's group argued in its comments that "the proposed language would permit child-directed websites or services to avoid COPPA by 'age gating,' and children's privacy would receive much less protections as a result."