The Federal Trade Commission enacted The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule more than ten years ago, long before children even knew what a smartphone was.  This Rule requires that operators of websites obtain consent from parents before collecting, using, or disclosing information from children under the age of 13.   For most websites, including Facebook, this means they require users to check a box indicating they are over the age of 13.  This “check-the-box” method is no longer enough to ensure children’s online safety.  Last month, the FTC announced proposed revisions to COPPA and are now asking for feedback on these changes from the public.

The Commission proposed modifications to the Rule in five main areas:

  1. Definitions: This includes altering the definitions of “personal information” and “collection” which would require parental consent to advertise to a child.
  2. Parental Notice: This is intended to force companies to streamline and clarify their privacy practices before collecting a child’s information.  This means to provide this information upfront, not in a lengthy and hidden privacy policy.
  3. Parental Consent: This would require new methods to obtain parental approval such as signed consent forms or checking government-issued IDs against a database.
  4. Confidentiality and Security: This would require website operators to keep personal information in their database only as long as is reasonably necessary and would require them to properly delete that information and take reasonable measures to protect against unauthorized access.
  5. Self-Regulatory “Safe Harbor” Programs: The FTC would require annual audits on any website operators obtaining personal information of children.

So what does this mean for you and your kids? If enacted, and upheld, the new changes could allow more enforcement on underage kids on Facebook, online chat rooms, and other social outlets.

“In this era of rapid technological change, kids are often tech savvy but judgment poor. We want to ensure that the COPPA Rule is effective in helping parents protect their children online, without unnecessarily burdening online businesses.” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said.

If the changes are upheld, you will probably see more websites requiring more restrictions rather than just “checking the box” to ensure users are over the age of 13.  However, these changes do not apply simply to websites.  The FTC clarified that COPPA applies also to any technology that can be considered “online services including mobile apps that permit children to play network-connected games, engage in social networking activities, and some text messages from online businesses.

Despite the restrictions, the rules also would add some flexibility for online business owners. The restrictions proposed would still allow sites to let children less than 13 years old participate in the website, without parental consent as long as the site owner takes “reasonable measures to delete all or virtually all children’s personal information before it is made public.”

While the amendment would help parents know what their children are doing online, and would help protect children’s information, it remains to be seen whether companies will be able to actually obtain reliable parental consent, whether online services will adhere to the regulations and what enforcement will be in place to ensure these protections remain secure.

The FTC is welcoming written comments regarding these proposed changes.  This is an opportunity to let your voice be heard and have your opinion count regarding your child’s online safety.  All comments must be received on or before November 28, 2011.

Write “COPPA Rule Review, 16 CFR Part 312, Project No. P-104503” on comments, and file your comment online at by following the instructions on the web-based form. To file comments on paper, mail or deliver comments to: Federal Trade Commission, Office of the Secretary, Room H-113 (Annex E) 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20580.

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