Antitrust Law Daily Senators call for FTC investigation into educational technology and digital advertising sectors’ privacy protections
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Friday, May 8, 2020

Senators call for FTC investigation into educational technology and digital advertising sectors’ privacy protections

By Jody Coultas, J.D.

Call for probe comes as FTC reviews the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act Rule.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators are urging the FTC to investigate children’s data practices in the educational technology and digital advertising sectors. In a May 8 letter, Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) note that online learning, and the potential privacy protection issues that come from it, have increased exponentially with most schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Online platforms and software are now a large part of the way many American children learn and have become essential for child development. This is especially true with most schools closed due to the coronoavirus pandemic. Collection of children’s data is central to a significant number of ed tech services, and experts have found "widespread lack of transparency and inconsistent privacy and security practices in the industry for educational software and other applications used in schools and by children outside the classroom for learning," the letter said. Also, the FBI has warned that "[m]alicious use of [student] data could result in social engineering, bullying, tracking, identity theft, or other means for targeting children."

With children spending increasingly more time online, they are inundated with digital marketing. The steep demand for children’s attention online comes with a steep demand for their personal information. In this way, the rise in digital marketing directed to children presents risks of privacy invasions, the letter says.

The senators highlight the lack of public information regarding the ways companies collect and process children’s personal information and urge the FTC to develop a clear understanding of current industry practices as "an essential step in the COPPA Rule review." Questions that should be covered in the FTC’s investigation include:

  • What personal data educational technology services and providers collect from children and teens;
  • How they obtain consent for this collection;
  • How long they retain students’ data and what their process is for deleting student data;
  • Whether they offer incentives for schools to integrate their products and services into their systems, and whether they offer incentives, such as financial discounts, for adults to consent to children’s data collection;
  • What third parties they work with to collect and process children’s information;
  • Whether they sell or share children’s data, including to affiliated companies and data brokers;
  • Whether they use geolocation information for marketing to children, and if so, how they do so; and
  • How they collect and process children’s biometric information, including facial recognition data.

FTC rule review. The COPPA Rule, which first went into effect in 2000 to implement the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, requires certain websites and other online services that collect personal information from children under the age of 13 to provide notice to parents and obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting, using, or disclosing personal information from these children. The FTC typically reviews its rules every 10 years and was last reviewed in 2013. However, in light of continued rapid changes in technology, the FTC will review the effectiveness of the 2013 amendments and whether additional changes are needed this year.

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