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FTC toughens online protection rules for children, restricting location and other data collection without parental consent

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The FTC has just announced that it has adopted amendments to rules enforced under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that requires companies to obtain parental consent for the collection of personal information of children 13 and younger. The updated rule requires companies to gather parental consent to collect geolocation information, photographs, and videos, and closes a "loophole" that allowed apps and websites directed towards children to allow third-parties to collect their personal information without consent. The law, originally enacted in 1998, contains a "safe harbor" provision that has allowed industry to mostly self-regulate by developing its own COPPA oversight programs. The FTC's overhaul of the rules signify that it's ready to step-up the government's enforcement of the law, but there are still some notable exemptions.

The FTC takes the reins from private industry

The updated rules clarify that the protections only apply to third-party services that have "actual knowledge" that they are operating on a children's service — meaning that Facebook Like, Google+, and other embeddable sharing services that collect data from users won't be broadly liable. As The Wall Street Journal reports, the new rule is a softer version of a prior proposal that would have required companies to comply if it "knows or has a reason to know" that it's on a children's site. Facebook and other web giants have pled to the government that such compliance under COPPA would be detrimental to their business operations.

The action follows a report released in February of this year that expressed the agency's concern with a lack of clarity about privacy and data collection in apps and websites targeted at children. In that report, the FTC fingered Apple, Google, and app developers for failing to provide clear and easy-to-understand information on their data gathering practices. The FTC said the report was intended to be a warning signal to the mobile industry for potential violations of COPPA. "The commission takes seriously its mandate to protect children's online privacy in this ever-changing digital landscape," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz writes in a statement. "I am confident that the amendments to the COPPA rule strike the right balance between protecting innovation that will provide rich and engaging content for children, and ensuring parents are informed and involved in their children's online activities."