Amid a swirling debate over children’s privacy online in a world of new, changing technology, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) updated and expanded its Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998 yesterday to cover mobile apps and social networks.

The new COPPA modifications aim to keep up with with evolving technology, including growth in social network and mobile app usage among kids, who are more vulnerable technology users. The amendments  “will “strengthen kids’ privacy protections and give parents greater control over the personal information that websites and online services may collect from children under 13,” the FTC says.

While the amendments will help strengthen children’s privacy online, the new rules only apply to sites that specifically target children. They do not apply to third party plug-ins including Facebook’s “Like” button or ad services unless the overlaying companies have “actual knowledge” that they are collecting information from a kid-directed website or service.

According to the updated rules (PDF), “the commission defines those who have ‘actual knowledge’ as a third-party that has been told directly its plug-in or advertisement is on a site for children, or if the third-party company recognizes that the site is specifically for kids.”

The amendments will not make social networks like Facebook more responsible for COPPA violations.  The FTC also very clearly exempts app stores run by companies like Google Inc. and Apple from responsibility should any games or software sold on those app markets violate child online privacy rules.

Key final amendments clarify the kinds of personal information the cannot be collected with without parental consent, including geolocation information, photos and videos.Third parties will also be restricted from collecting personal information through plugins on apps specifically targeting children without notifying parents and receiving consent.

COPPA protection also extends to mobile device identifiers so that companies and web operators can’t track which devices children are using and what kinds of sites they are visiting on the devices over time.

An article on the Wall Street Journal’s website notes that while the commission’s decision to amend children’s online privacy regulations puts an end to part of the debate over how closely such regulations should be applied to online privacy, it also sets the stage for new debates.

For instance, Jon Potter, president of the Application Developers Alliance, worries “that talented and responsible developers will abandon the children’s app marketplace” as a result of the regulations, which may seem too inconvenient and burdensome to them.

The Journal also reports that those supporting the amendment will continue to push for Apple and Google to be held more responsible for their app practices. Some Congress members are also seeking to tighten limits on online tracking of children and teenagers.

The COPPA rule as a whole regulates the way companies collect personal information from children under the age of 13. The FTC has been carefully reviewing the act for the past two years to determine how it should function within new digital platforms such as smartphones and social media.

According to Wall Street Journal’s article,  Google says it will consider the changes and work to protect children’s privacy as effectively as possible while Facebook says it is happy with the law’s lack of regulation on software such as its “Like” button.

The COPPA modifications “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,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said on the final rules.

The new amendments are set to go into affect on July 1, 2013


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