FTC gives parents more control of children's personal info

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Parental control

The Federal Trade Commission is putting the final touches on amendments to a law that protects children's privacy on the net.

The agency announced Wednesday the changes to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that would give parents better control over their kids' private information on the web and clarifies rules that govern how websites collect info from those under 13.

COPPA was passed in 1998, and a review of the law began in 2010. Now the overhaul is almost finished, and the FTC is adding language that cover mobile devices and social media sites.

"The Internet of 2012 is vastly different from the Internet of more than a decade ago, when we first issued the COPPA Rule," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a statement about the changes.

"Since then, we have seen the rise of smartphones, tablets, social networks, and more than a million apps. And while all of these advances have enriched our lives, enhanced educational opportunities, and grown our economy, they also exacerbate the privacy risks to children."

The fine print

One of the biggest additions is to the list of "personal information" that companies can't collect without parental consent. Data such as geolocation info, pictures and video can't be gathered without parents' say-so.

The new rules also bar companies from tracking kids' IP addresses and mobile device ID's which could be used to build a behavioral marketing profile.

The amendments close loopholes that allowed third-party companies to collect personal data without parental consent on apps and websites targeted at kids

The law will also expand to cover those third-party companies that have escaped this type of regulation since they were so new. Those companies will now have to comply with COPPA standards before collecting any data on children.

Permission slip

But the FTC threw websites a bone and expanded the ways these sites can get parental approval.

These new methods include electronic scans of signed consent forms, video conferences, the use of government-issued ID and payment systems like debit cards and other electronic payment methods.

The FTC also offered companies "a streamlined, voluntary and transparent approval process" for new ways to obtain parental consent. If companies find better ways to get approval, the FTC said it will approve acceptable methods.

Finally, the new rules strengthen the FTC's oversight over "safe harbor programs," self-regulatory groups that promote child protection on the web. These groups are now required to conduct audits on members and report back to the FTC annually.

That's all the exciting highlights of the new changes to COPPA, minus a bunch of legalese. The FTC has basically modernized the law to keep up with the rise of social media sites and the now-ubiquitous smartphone.

But it's just as important as ever for parents to read the fine print before signing their kids up for online services.