US online child privacy rules to get stricter

June 30, 2013 - 12:00:00 am

WASHINGTON: Toughened US regulations on online privacy for children take effect tomorrow, offering new protections amid the growing use of mobile apps and social networks by youngsters.

The new Federal Trade Commission rules are being hailed by some as a milestone, but critics claim they could stifle the growth of child-friendly websites and services.

The rules from the US watchdog, in updating the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, include stricter privacy protections for children under 13 by expanding the definition of “personal information” to include geolocation data, as well as photos, videos and audio files.

They also ban “behavioural advertising” directed toward children without parental notice and consent. This would prevent children from getting “re-targeting” ads, which are based on browsing history.

“This is an important victory for privacy rights on the Internet,” said Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, which spent four years lobbying for the new rules. “There is no more secret tracking or behavioral tracking,” he said. “Online services can’t secretly follow a child around the Web and target the child with advertising” based on the youngster’s profile.

Nineteen public health, consumer and digital rights groups endorsed the new rules, telling the FTC they are “necessary to protect children and assist parents in light of the growing use of computers, mobile phones, and tablets, the increasing amount of data that is collected through these devices.”

Endorsing groups include the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Consumers Union and the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The rules also apply to mobile apps and “plug-ins” similar to the Facebook “like” button used on millions of websites, but with limitations.

Third-party plug-ins will be responsible only where they have “actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information from users of a child-directed site,” according to the FTC.

Although the new rules are aimed at protecting children on social media, the biggest social network, Facebook, is mostly unaffected because its policies don’t allow children under 13 to join.

Chester said this remains a concern because of Facebook’s “sophisticated data tracking” for marketing. “We don’t think COPPA (the new rules) will be enough to protect children from the onslaught of the Facebook business model,” he said.

Implementation could lead to some confusion because strict limits apply only when websites are “directed” at children. Some critics claim this could stifle some websites by forcing them to demand age verification.

Some say the rules may have little impact because children are often more tech-savvy than their parents and find ways to circumvent controls.

“It’s incredibly easy for kids” to get around age verification, said Stanley Holditch, online safety expert at McAfee, which recently released a study showing that 85 percent of US children between 10 and 12 used Facebook. 

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