Congress is already extremely suspicious of Big Tech’s data collection practices, but when it comes to children’s privacy and enforcement of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), politicians and state attorneys general alike are ready to bring down the hammer.
COPPA is currently the only online privacy law in the U.S., and the fact that regulators repeatedly accuse Silicon Valley of violating it could result in tighter privacy laws and tougher penalties in the future.
Last week Federal Trade Commission (FTC) assured senators at an oversight hearing that COPPA enforcement would be a “priority,” and yesterday Oath, Inc., a subsidiary of Verizon and the owner of AOL and Yahoo, agreed to pay a $5 million settlement for violating COPPA, following a New York attorney general investigation.
According to the New York attorney general’s office, “AOL conducted billions of auctions for ad space on hundreds of websites the company knew were directed to children under the age of 13. Through these auctions, AOL collected, used, and disclosed personal information from the websites’ users in violation of COPPA, enabling advertisers to track and serve targeted ads to young children.”
Some congressmen have accused Google’s YouTube of doing the exact same thing. Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) sent a letter to Google in September demanding an explanation of YouTube’s data collection practices.
YouTube, like AOL, collects and stores personal data of its users, including children. COPPA prohibits any company from collecting personal data on children under the age of 13 without parental consent.
According to YouTube’s terms of service, children under the age of 13 are not supposed to use the platform, but YouTube has no way of verifying that children under the age of 13 are not using the platform. Furthermore, according to a complaint filed with the FTC in April by consumer advocacy groups, many of YouTube’s channels specifically target children.
At the oversight hearing last week, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) asked the FTC if such practices violate Section 5 of the FTC Act by being “unfair and deceptive,” to which FTC Chairman Joseph Simons replied, “It is certainly a concern for us.”
Markey told Simons he wants “manipulative marketing” in children’s apps investigated, as well as smartphone games and apps that he believes are not compliant with COPPA, like ones that track children’s location.
Now that Oath has settled with New York, more state attorneys general and the FTC may investigate other tech companies like YouTube for similar practices.
But more importantly, Congress wants to target these kinds of practices in its new privacy law.
Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) introduced a Do Not Track Kids Act of 2018 to the House earlier this year, but Markey said he plans to introduce his own version in January 2019.
“Any [privacy] legislation Congress considers must include special protections for children and teens,” he said. “We need to extend special protections to 13-15 year olds who right now are not covered in COPPA. I we reach a consensus on nothing else, it should be the children of our country. They’re not a product.”