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November 2011

Do Parents Need Greater Tools to Protect Children’s Online Privacy?

The argument that it is up to parents to exert more control over what their children view on the Internet is frustrating to hear, since parents are given little or no tools to exert that control. Children can see so much on the Internet that seems so inappropriate for their ages. In addition, with the advent of social media such as Facebook, children are placing very personal details about themselves on the Internet, which is often open to anyone to see, including aggressive marketers. Consumer Reports conducted research and found out that 7.5 million American children under the age of 13 were using Facebook.

Fortunately, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is carefully studying Internet privacy for children and announced that it will move ahead with changes to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 regulations that would include new provisions requiring: (1) parental consent for websites to collect a broad range of information, including location, about children under the age of 13; (2) requiring parents to give permission for websites to use tracking “cookie” software that builds profiles about children and to monitor children’s online activities for targeting ads; and (3) requiring websites that collect personal information on children to ensure they can protect the information and delete it safely when the information is no longer necessary. The new regulations would be expanded to apply to all apps and mobile platforms as well as to the use of facial-recognition technology.

The FTC also is exploring whether its proposed regulations should require beefed-up parental consent to be obtained through submissions of scanned versions of signed consent forms rather than through a two-step e-mail and authorization process.

According to FTC Commissioner Julie Brill, the level of online tracking is unprecedented and is largely not detected by parents or consumers. She believes this raises serious privacy concerns and has recently noted that children’s privacy issues have been an area of FTC enforcement with 16 cases brought in the past several years. For example, the FTC earlier this year imposed a $50,000 fine on W3 Innovations, a company that collected personal information on children through mobile phone apps with proper parental consent.

The FTC’s chairperson, Jon Leibowitz, correctly notes that children are “tech-savvy but judgment poor.” I have seen many children place personal information on Facebook pages. It’s important for children to know why they should not post such personal details on Facebook and how marketers (much less online predators) may attempt to use that information. However, I am probably not alone in thinking that I am barely keeping up with my children and their friends in their adoption of new online technologies, some of which make it difficult to track children’s online activities. Readers of this column know I am not a fan of government over-regulation, but parents need to have effective tools to ensure children are protected from unscrupulous marketers and online predators if we are to also be held accountable for our children’s’ actions.

You may comment on the proposed FTC rules at: https://ftcpublic.commentworks.com/ftc/2011copparulereview/. Also, the FTC publishes helpful online privacy guides for parents and teachers on its website at: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/menus/consumer/data/child.shtm.

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