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July 08, 2013

COPPA: What Parents Need to Know

By TMCnet Special Guest
Matt McDonnell, Vice President of Operations, Famigo

If you have kids that use mobile apps and websites - and they haven’t heard of the word “COPPA” (pronounced cop – uh) yet - you will soon. 

COPPA stands for the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The Act authorized the creation of the rules necessary “to place parents in control over what information is collected from their young children online.” The Rule applies to kids under 13.

COPPA was enacted more than a decade ago – Bill Clinton was still President, the iPod would not be invented for a few more years, and Mark Zuckerberg had just graduated from eighth grade. Times have changed since the COPPA Rule was first written, so the FTC has just issued an update.


Image via Shutterstock

What do parents need to know about the updated rule?

First, there are two kinds of information you should be able to tell apart - personally identifiable information (PII) and non-personally identifiable information (Non-PII). If you could take a piece of information, say an e-mail address or mobile phone ID number, and trace it back to an individual, then it’s PII. Non-PII is information that a company would collect to support its internal operations.  

For example, a company might want to measure which features are used most in order to offer a better product. COPPA mostly deals with PII and has expanded the definition to cover more types of information.

Second, it puts responsibility on the parent to monitor the online data sharing behavior of their child. The COPPA Rule does this by giving parents the “right to control the collection and use of your child’s information.”

How can parents control the collection and use of their child’s information? 

The Rule requires companies that operate child-directed apps and websites to provide parents notice of their privacy practices. This notice will most likely come through an e-mail. It’s important to read those e-mails because they disclose how a company will use the data it collects from your child, and whether it will be shared with others. 

The rule also requires that parents consent to the disclosed information collection practices. That means you’ll have to approve or deny your child’s access to certain websites and apps based on your judgment of privacy policies. 

What should you look for?  

There’s all kinds of legal jargon jammed in privacy policies (blame the lawyers not the developers), but you should find a section that states what information is collected, and another that tells you how the information is used and whether the data is shared. If you see something that makes you uncomfortable, do a little research or e-mail the company and ask for clarification.

The rule gives the parents a couple other rights, like the right to access data stored about your child, the right to revoke your consent, and the right to request the deletion of PII stored about your child. If you choose to exercise these rights, be forewarned; you’ll probably be grilled by the representative you speak with since they’ll really want to make sure you’re the actual parent.

What should you do if you encounter something unsavory? Contact the developer.  Developers have to know about problems in order to fix them – and once you have notified someone of an issue you will be able to tell by their response whether they are someone you should trust with sensitive data pertaining to your child.

Kids need good digital role models

Lots of times, we think of good digital citizenship as simply avoiding sharing information inappropriately. Real citizenship requires participation. We need to role model the positive behaviors we’d like to encourage. 

That’s why app developers, parents and the government should show kids how all kinds of people can work together when an issue is really important. 

Children’s privacy is one of those issues.

About the Author
With a varied past as an Outward Bound sailing instructor, elementary school teacher and non-profit administrator, Matt does a little bit of everything at Famigo, an Austin-based startup that builds technology to protect kids and families on mobile devices. A native of Scranton, PA, Matt holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Colgate University, an MBA from the College of Charleston, and is currently taking a leave of absence from the University of Texas School of Law. Follow Matt on Twitter @mmmcdonnell




Edited by Alisen Downey


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