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FTC Increasing Enforcement of Children's Privacy Laws

February 2011

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has indicated that it will be stepping up enforcement under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), expressing concerns about the information that some companies collect through websites, social media or mobile applications.

COPPA prohibits operators of websites, which can include not only traditional Internet sites but also social media pages, online communities and mobile applications, from collecting, using or disclosing personal information about children 12 years old or younger without first obtaining permission from their parents.  Personal information includes any information that can be used to identify or contact a child, such the child's name, address, e-mail address, phone number and so forth.  Businesses can unwittingly collect such information through contest pages, online comment sections or bulletin boards, social networking pages and applications for the iPhone and other mobile devices.  Even if a child volunteers his or her own personal information, the operator of the site on which the information is posted may be liable under COPPA.

A senior FTC attorney indicated at a recent American Bar Association program that the Commission will soon be launching a new set of COPPA enforcement actions.  The FTC is particularly interested in social networking sites, where so-called "fan pages" have "many, many, many underage participants." 

The FTC's renewed interest in children's online privacy comes as it is revising its COPPA rules (see "FTC and Congress Considering Changes to COPPA Addressing Social Networks, Mobile Devices and Location-Based Services," Privacy In Focus [June 2010]).  Among the items under consideration are whether to expand the definition of personal information to include items such as website cookies, location information collected from mobile devices and photographs or videos of children.  The FTC is expected to publish its findings soon.  The FTC is also considering whether the age ceiling should be raised to make the restrictions applicable to teenagers 17 years old and under.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is independently considering certain children's privacy issues, such as how some television broadcasters and cable operators target children with interactive advertising and on-screen games. 

*District of Columbia Bar pending, supervised by principals of the firm