Google, Facebook and Twitter Join Forces to Fight New Child Privacy Efforts
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The Obama administration is proposing to strengthen child privacy laws, and Internet giants Facebook, Twitter and Google are not happy. According to the three websites, the proposed law changes will interfere with their user’s ability to tweet, share information on the Web, and to “like” Facebook posts. They also say that these changes hamper free speech.

The law in question is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA), which was written before things like smartphones and location-based apps were so prevalent with minor children. Now the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) plans to oversee these websites and others, including Digg, Google+ and Reddit. The concern is that these websites all embed plugins on millions of websites across the net, which allows users to conveniently access and post stories and events to their own timelines.


The problem, says the FTC, is that when an underage user, or any user for that matter, clicks the plugin, the information is collected by the social networks who use the information for advertising purposes. The new law would require that the social networks get permission from parents to collect any information from users under 13 on child-oriented websites. The host websites will also be required to make it clear that they are oriented towards children and are collecting personal information including names, phone numbers, email addresses and other demographic information.

But Twitter, Facebook and Google are crying foul in the comments that they filed last week with the FTC, saying that it would make the host sites resistant to linking to partner sites if they would be responsible for missteps by their partner sites. This, the troubled Internet trio say, would cause a “diminishing of freedom of expression.” Facebook went even further saying that the FTC “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between plugin providers and website publishers.”

Google says the new rules would “undermine the ability of sites and services to provide engaging online resources to children. COPPA should not become a barrier to children’s ability to access appropriate and beneficial online resources for education and entertainment.”

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But the FTC and privacy advocates feel that these social media sites need to be more responsible, with the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection senior staff lawyer Phyllis Marcus saying, “The fact of the matter is, there is information being collected from children through child-directed Web sites and online services, and the question is who should be responsible.”

Twitter and Facebook admit that, even though they have set a minimum age limit at 13, they lack the resources to monitor the actual ages of all their users. Consumer Reports, in a study two years ago, found that there are at least 7 million minor children, 12 and under, on Facebook. Other experts estimate that the number is likely much higher, especially with the addition of other social sites like Twitter.

Apple is also weighing in on this issue, due to concerns that the new beefed-up rules would make software platforms such as Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android responsible for the several hundred thousand apps, developed by various companies and individuals that run on their devices. Said Apple vice president Catherine Novelli in their comments that were also filed last week, “Congress does not make department stores liable for the data collection practices of the companies that sell children’s products in a department store.”

 

But advocates for children are not swayed. Says Stanford University professor Jim Steyer, who heads the child advocacy group Common Sense Media, “It’s a pathetic argument for the richest companies in the world to say they don’t have the resources or ability to protect children.”

Of course what many suspect as the real issue behind the vehement protests of Google, Facebook and Twitter is the fear that this is going to severely impact their ad revenue, causing the companies to take a financial hit.

The FTC plans for the new rules to be finalized by the end of the year, with both sides eagerly awaiting the final verdict.

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