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FTC tightens privacy rules for child data protection

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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has released the results of its two-year review into online child privacy rules and issued a host of amendments that will be backed up by the threat of large fines.

The FTC has been conducting its first review of the 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in light of the shift to social networking and the increasing use of third-party applications. Facebook, Google, and others have all been giving their interpretations of what the rules should be, and the changes don’t look too restrictive.

"Geolocation information, as well as photos, videos, and audio files that contain a child’s image or voice" are now included under the FTC regulations, and it will set up a voluntary system that can be bolted onto existing code to ensure parental consent. A loophole in COPPA allowing some third-party providers to evade parental consent rules has also been closed.

"However, no parental notice and consent is required when an operator collects a persistent identifier for the sole purpose of supporting the website or online service's internal operations, such as contextual advertising, frequency capping, legal compliance, site analysis, and network communications," the recommendations state.

While that's good news for Big Data, companies that store children's details are also going to have to have "reasonable procedures" in place to ensure that records can't fall into the wrong hands, as well as ensuring data isn’t kept too long and will be properly deleted.

Apple's App Store and Google Play have been deemed outside of the FTC framework, but the rules do cover "any child-directed site or service that integrates outside services, such as plug-ins or advertising networks, that collect personal information from its visitors." FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen felt this definition too broad and decided to "respecfully dissent" in the vote over the new rules.

As ever, the FTC will back this up by fines. Online gaming firm RockYou got a $250,000 bill in March after hackers got 32 million unencrypted email addresses and passwords from its servers, and the FTC has been on Apple's and Google's backs to tighten up application safeguards.

"The Commission takes seriously its mandate to protect children’s online privacy in this ever-changing technological landscape," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz in a statement.

"I am confident that the amendments to the COPPA Rule strike the right balance between protecting innovation that will provide rich and engaging content for children, and ensuring that parents are informed and involved in their children's online activities."

The rules were passed by three votes to one, with one abstention. Developers have until July 1 of next year to set their houses in order, and it's not outside the realm of possibility that additional clarifications may be forthcoming. ®

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