The Secure Times

An online forum of the ABA Section of Antitrust Law's Privacy and Information Security Committee

Changes Ahead in Children Online Privacy?

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Children’s privacy has been a hot topic during the last few weeks, and the debate goes on.

Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit organization, sent a letter on February 24 to Reps. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Joe Barton, (R-TX), Co-Chairmen of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, stating concerns over Google solicitation of the partial Social Security numbers of children wanting to participle in a Doodle 4 contest. A hearing  before the Caucus was promptly scheduled.

The two chairmen wrote in a joint statement:

"As Co-Chairmen of the Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, we have long believed that consumers should have control over their own personal information. It is particularly important that stringent privacy protections are applied so that children do not have their personal information collected or disclosed.”

In the European Union

This position is similar to the position of the European Union (EU) Commission. The Commission published last month a communication on the EU Agenda for the Rights of the Child. The communication discusses the need to protect children from cyber-bullying, and notes that” [t]he Commission aims at achieving a high level of protection of children in the digital space, including of their personal data, while fully upholding their right to access internet for the benefit of their social and cultural development.”(p.10-11)

The Commission referred to another of its communications, published last November, about a comprehensive approach on personal data protection in the European Union. Noting there that it is essential that individuals be clearly informed by data controllers about how and by whom their data are collected and processed, the commission then emphasized that children “deserve specific protection, as they may be less aware of risks, consequences, safeguards and rights in relation to the processing of personal data.” (p.6)

Children’s privacy and social media sites

Even children less than 13 years old may register on some social media sites. We recently learned that Disney has acquired Togetherville, a social network for elementary school age children.  According to the site’s policy, only “parents, or legal guardian, who have gone through the process of verifying their identity based on COPPA standards, are allowed to create and administer accounts for their children.”

Is COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, still able to protect the privacy of children when they visit social media sites? The 1998 Act prohibits unfair or deceptive acts or practices in connection with the collection, use, or disclosure of personally identifiable information from and about children on the Internet.

 Ed Markey was the House author of the COPPA bill. He stated last December at an Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection hearing concerning Do Not Track Legislation:

But in Internet years, 1998 is so long ago – we may as well be talking about the Peloponnesian Wars.  The 1990’s is way back in the “B.F. Era” – Before Facebook.”

Only children older than 13 are authorized to use Facebook, according to the site’s policy. However, a 2009 report of Pew Internet & American Life Project revealed that 55% of children age 12 to 13 years are using Facebook. 

Facebook answered on February 23 the letter sent on February 2nd by Representative Markey and Representative Barton to Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, requesting information about Facebook’s January 14th announcement that the site would allow third-party websites to access users’ addresses and mobile phone numbers they entered on their Facebook’s profiles. Representatives Markey and Barton asked Facebook whether it had considered “the risks to children or teenagers posed by enabling third parties to access their home addresses and mobile phone numbers through Facebook.” Facebook answered that it is “actively considering whether to enable application to request contact information for minors at all.”

Parents and children should be educated about online privacy

One of the round tables organized by the FTC last year was about “Privacy Implications of Social Networking and Other Platform Providers.” One of the panelists, Chris Conley, noted that while parents have the responsibility of protecting their children’s privacy, parents do not always understand the new technologies well and that thus “[w]e have to make sure that the parents, that teachers, that everyone else is also educated about the consequences of these choices online so that they can help their children understand what they mean.” (p. 117)

What’s next?

Following the privacy roundtables, the FTC issued a privacy report last December, posing several questions: Should COPPA apply to emerging media, including mobile devices, interactive television, and interactive gaming? Should COPPA’s definition of personally identifiable information be expanded? Do technological advances dictate changes to the methods for verification of parental consent? Questions such as these, according to the report, should be addressed by the FTC in the next few months (p. 29 of the FTC Report).

2011 should be a year of changes in children online privacy law, both in the U.S. and in the E.U.


Author: marieandreeweiss

Marie-Andrée was educated in France and in the United States, and holds law degrees from both countries. She is fully bilingual English-French, and writes articles regularly in these two languages on various privacy-related topics. Marie-Andrée is a member of the Bar of the State of New York. As an attorney in solo practice, she focuses on intellectual property, First Amendment, privacy, and Internet-related issues. Before becoming an attorney, she worked several years in the fashion retail industry, as a buyer then a director of marketing. She is a member of the New York State Bar Association (Intellectual Property Section and International Section), and of the American Bar Association (Business Law Section, Section of Antitrust Law, and Section of Intellectual Property Law)

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