Advocacy groups press FTC to subpoena tech firms during children’s privacy review

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A coalition of 31 health, privacy and children’s advocacy groups is pressing the government to subpoena tech companies for extensive information about how they monetize and amass personal information about children. 

The groups, including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the American Academy of Pediatrics, say the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) needs to use its subpoena authority as it considers updating a decades-old children’s privacy law.

Children are being subjected to a purposefully opaque ‘Big Data’ digital marketing system that continually gathers their information when they are online,” Katharina Kopp, director of policy at the Center for Digital Democracy, said in a statement. “The FTC must use its authority to understand how new and evolving advertising practices targeting kids really work, and whether these data practices are having a discriminatory, or other harmful impact, on their lives.” 

In a letter sent released Thursday, the groups commended the FTC for recently opening a review into whether it’s necessary to amend the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a federal law written in 1998 that offers privacy safeguards for children online. But they said it wouldn’t be useful for the FTC to update children’s privacy rules without fully understanding how tech companies surveil children today.

The letter does not name particular companies, but any review would likely include firms like TikTok, Google’s YouTube and Facebook’s Instagram, which are all known for having young users. 

The groups are particularly concerned about how companies amass personal information about children in order to target advertisements toward them.

“The digital media industry has increasingly turned to technology that incorporates artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality, marketing and data-gathering techniques have evolved accordingly,” they wrote.

The FTC is currently looking to update its rules on internet privacy for children in light of renewed concerns about how tech companies are catering to, and collecting data on, young internet users. The agency usually reviews its COPPA regulations every 10 years, and the last time it looked into the children’s privacy law was in 2013. However, it announced over the summer that it will undertake an early review in order to stay ahead of “rapid technological changes.”  

The agency is interested in topics including the rise of smart speakers and online advertising. 

The review was announced just before the FTC announced a record-shattering $170 million settlement with YouTube over alleged children’s privacy violations. The fine, by far the largest ever imposed on a website for violations of COPPA, drew criticism from advocates who said it did not go far enough.   

“The FTC should complete its homework before it proposes changes to the regulations that safeguard children’s privacy,” Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said in a statement on Thursday. “Without a clear understanding of current industry practices, the agency’s proposal will be ill-informed and counterproductive.”  


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