FTC Launches Study of Children’s Online Privacy Practices

FTC issues orders to nine social media & video streaming services, demanding information on how they collect and use children’s data

Responding to a year-old request from Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and 30 other advocacy groups, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced last month that it had issued orders under Section 6(b) of the Federal Trade Commission Act to nine social media and video streaming companies, demanding that they provide information about how they collect, use, and present children’s personal information, their advertising and user engagement practices, and how their practices affect children and teens. The companies — Amazon.com, Inc., ByteDance Ltd. (which operates the short video service TikTok), Discord Inc., Facebook Inc., Reddit Inc., Snap Inc., Twitter Inc., WhatsApp Inc., and YouTube LLC — were given 45 days to respond.

In a joint statement, FTC Commissioners Rohit Chopra, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, and Christine S. Wilson acknowledged that, “Policymakers and the public are in the dark about what social media and video streaming services do to capture and sell users’ data and attention. It is alarming that we still know so little about companies that know so much about us.” They stated that the Commission’s 6(b) study will “lift the hood on the social media and video streaming firms to carefully study their engines.”

In December 2019, CFA and 30 other advocacy groups responded to a request for comments from the FTC about whether changes were needed to the rules under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), urging the agency to first use its authority under Section 6(b) of the FTC Act to answer “critical questions about online digital advertising, children on general audience platforms, data brokers, and education technology that will inform the agency’s approach.”

“Websites, apps, platforms, and content providers all have access to a wealth of user information — including classes of information that constitute ‘personal information’ under COPPA,” the groups stated. “Service providers collect this information to deliver functionality, but also to analyze performance and track, predict, and modify user behavior… Unnecessary data collection is common, transparency is rare, and misrepresentations about data practices are far too widespread. A comprehensive examination of these practices is severely needed,” the groups added.

Last month’s request for data “is exactly what we wanted,” said Susan Grant, CFA Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy. “It is crucial for the FTC to understand exactly what these companies are doing with children’s personal information in order to determine whether the current COPPA rules are sufficient and propose effective public policy solutions if they are not.”

Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is a non-profit organization advancing the consumer interest through research, advocacy, and education.

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