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Protecting your child’s online privacy

Updated rules keep pace with mobile apps and social media

Published: August 2013

A lot has changed in the last 15 years when it comes to children and the Internet. More kids are online at earlier ages, and companies have greater access to children’s personal information through social networks, mobile apps, and gaming.

Unfortunately, the law for protecting children’s online privacy had not changed in the last 15 years.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was a landmark federal law that gave parents more control over the information that was collected about their children online. If a child under 13 wanted to use features on a website or online service that collected her personal information, COPPA said a parent must get a plain-language notice about what information the site will collect and how it would use it, and the company had to get the parent’s verified consent.

But the act was passed in 1998, when the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, was only 14, and touch-screen tablets were mostly the stuff of science fiction. As technology advanced and data collecting expanded, there were lots of questions about what the act did and didn’t cover. It became clear that the law was in serious need of an update.

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, and other advocacy groups pressed the Federal Trade Commission to ensure that the latest innovations were covered for parents and kids.

This summer, after years of debate and review, we’re happy to report that the FTC has revised rules in place. The modified rule widens the definition of children’s personal information to include items such as cookies that track a child’s activity online, and photos, videos, audio recordings, and geolocation information. The FTC also has an updated guide to help parents take charge of their kids’ online privacy.

We think the updated rules put stronger protections in place that are appropriately aimed at a wider variety of digital media. The rules help bring much-needed clarity to what’s considered “personal information,” and they give parents greater peace of mind.

Policy & Action Update

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit on Aug. 13 to block the proposed merger of American Airlines and US Airways, which would create the nation’s largest airline. Consumers Union testified against the merger at a Senate hearing in March, saying the deal could seriously harm competition, leaving consumers with higher fares, fewer flights to choose from, and lower quality of service. We urged regulators to apply tough scrutiny to the deal, and we’re very pleased to see they have. But the airlines are not going away quietly. The lawsuit was somewhat of a surprise among industry players who believed the deal was on a glide path to approval, and the airlines have promised to fight the suit in court.

Also: The Orlando Sentinel and Associated Press have reported a tragic story in Kissimmee, Fla., where a 7-month-old boy died after ingesting a laundry pod detergent. The official cause of death is still under investigation, but the circumstances are a painful reminder of the dangers associated with these highly concentrated pod detergents. As we have reported, children may mistake the laundry pods for candy because of their colorful appearance and soft, squishy texture. The ingestion of a packet can cause excessive vomiting, lethargy, or gasping for breath, and some children have wound up in the hospital on ventilators. We firmly believe that manufacturers should change the appearance of these pods so they’re less appealing to kids, or coat them with a foul-tasting material. We also want to see better warning labels, safer packaging, and mandatory standards to protect kids.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the public-policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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