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Yelp pays $450,000 in FTC lawsuit after letting children sign up for accounts

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Yelp is the latest company to settle a children's privacy case with the Federal Trade Commission. The agency posted a settlement today, saying Yelp would pay $450,000 for violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a rule that limits how sites can collect information from people under 13. In its original complaint, the FTC said that while Yelp's website screened users when they signed up, from 2009 to 2013, Yelp's mobile app let anyone, regardless of age, register for an account. Once they had, they could post photos and reviews, and Yelp collected location data from their phones, thus accepting personal information on "several thousand individuals" who indicated that they were between 9 and 13 years old.

"Yelp doesn't promote itself as a place for children."

As part of the settlement, Yelp will need to lay out a set of privacy rules that clearly comply with the guidelines, then periodically report on how it's following them. It will also need to keep records of any complaints for ten years and, in general, let the FTC know when it makes any policy changes. Over the past few years, the FTC has laid down stricter rules for how sites have to deal with young users, and it's cracked down on companies that don't comply. Social network Path, which weathered a larger privacy scandal in 2012, paid $800,000 last year in order to settle similar charges. Apple, Google, and Amazon have all faced lawsuits for making it too easy for children to run up in-app purchase bills without parents' knowledge; Apple settled for $32.5 million, Google, recently agreed to $19 million, and Amazon is taking the fight to court. In its press release, the FTC also noted a separate $300,000 settlement for COPPA violations with mobile developer TinyCo.

Yelp has posted its own announcement of the settlement, calling the problem a "bug" in its mobile apps. "The good news is that only about 0.02 percent of users who actually completed Yelp's registration process during this time period provided an underage birth date, and we have good reason to believe that many of them were actually adults," it wrote. "Yelp doesn't promote itself as a place for children, and we certainly don't expect or encourage them to write reviews about their plumbers, dentists, or latest gastronomic discoveries." If it did, it would need to get affirmative consent from parents before letting anybody under 13 onto the site.

An important note in all this is that COPPA violations are largely dependent on having "actual knowledge" that users are under 13. As Yelp notes on its blog, "birthdates on Yelp are optional in the first place, so users are always free to register without one." So kids, if you want to leave a review of your dentist, just don't say how old you are.