FTC Wants New Rules to Protect Children's Privacy Online
The FTC is taking steps to reinforce rules designed to protect children's privacy online. The effort may provide additional guidance for parties inclined to cooperate, but when it comes to implementation, "this is really something that even technologists have had a hard time trying to crack," said Billy Pidgeon of M2 Research. "The FTC can write regulations, but they can't enforce it."
The Federal Trade Commission announced Wednesday that it was considering new rules to protect children's privacy online. Regulators called for tougher privacy protections to make it harder for advertisers and social networks to collect information about children without permission from the parents.
The newly proposed rules would require third-party partners of online sites, including those that offer plug-ins to ad networks, to ask permission from a parent or guardian to collect information about users under 13 years of age.
This tough talk sounds good, but how can the FTC ensure it actually can be accomplished?
"At this point, they probably don't know -- and more importantly, they don't have the technical chops to do so," said Billy Pidgeon, principal analyst for M2 Research. "This is really something that even technologists have had a hard time trying to crack. The FTC can write regulations, but they can't enforce it."
The FTC did not respond to our request for further details.
Update of COPPA
At its essence, this new call for rules and regulations builds on the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998. The FTC failed to foresee the evolution of online social networks and the way personal information is now routinely collected, it noted.
The revision of the child privacy laws is thus aimed to catch up with advancing technology, and to ensure that websites and advertisers limit the tracking of children.
The question again arises as to how this is actually supposed to be accomplished, especially given the fact that on the one hand, it is very common to be tracked online -- sites you've visited and purchases you've made, for example -- even while concealing some facts about yourself, namely, your actual age.
"There is a certain level of anonymity that exists online, and part of this anonymity is that it is very hard to determine if someone is lying about age," said Alan Webber, principal analyst at the Altimeter Group. "How you can verify whether someone is a child? There is no way of accurately verifying the age."
So why is the FTC pushing this now? One answer is that the FTC is looking to be proactive, and basically putting companies and website operators on notice. This is basically throwing it back to the websites, especially as more online users are discovering how much they are being tracked.
"The thing is, they are talking about kids and privacy, but this really should be about online privacy," Pidgeon told TechNewsWorld.
"Most people don't understand privacy. Most people don't understand how much of their data and usage is tracked where they go," he said. "People outside the tech industry don't know, and they are shocked when they find out."
Is privacy something that can be regulated, or is this really an effect to offer the appearance of protection, especially for children?
"Any proposal to increase kids' awareness of data use and privacy-related issues is beneficial," said Josh Crandall, principal analyst at Netpop Research.
"Certifying parental consent still has implementation issues, but requiring this step creates an extra hurdle to sign up for a service and increases awareness about the potential implications," he said. "The earlier the kids recognize the potential consequences of their actions online, the better. Digital footprints don't fade away when the wind blows."
Additionally, consumer privacy advocates have been pushing for stronger rules than even what the FTC has drafted, and have called for advertisers to avoid behavioral advertising on children. With sites geared toward kids, this might be reasonable to enforce -- but what about the broader issue of keeping kids away from other sites? Moreover, can and will websites be punished if children still manage to enter sites they're not supposed to?
"It comes down to saying 'have you made the best effort' to put in barriers to a site that isn't safe for children," said Webber. "The companies need to say 'we did the best we could,' and that might be enough."
Just as with the debate over TV and movies, the best option might not be policing of sites but better communication between children and parents.
"Some parents are going to keep kids off the Internet, which is the most extreme way to ensure privacy," said Pidgeon, who is also the father of two young boys. "But really, this is just another talk the parents have to have with their kids to keep them safe."