September 26, 2018

Udall Fights to Protect Children’s Privacy Rights

Recent reports indicate thousands of children’s mobile apps are illegally tracking online behavior

Udall holds tech companies accountable for failing to ensure compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, calls for children’s privacy hearing

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) questioned top executives from various technology and telecommunications firms, including Google, Twitter, Apple, Amazon, AT&T and Charter, about whether they are taking the appropriate steps to protect data privacy rights for consumers in New Mexico and across America. In a Senate Commerce Committee hearing titled “Examining Safeguards for Consumer Data Privacy,” he focused on potential violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by kids apps hosted on major technology companies’ platforms. Udall also urged Congress to strengthen and modernize COPPA with the necessary safeguards to protect children’s online privacy rights in the 21st century.  

“We need to hold a separate hearing on what a future framework that protects children should look like,” Udall said in his opening statement. “My friend, Senator Markey, passed the COPPA in 1998 – and it took effect in 2000. The internet, and our children’s online activity, looked very different then.  We didn’t have Facebook or Twitter or social media. Our internet activity was not surreptitiously tracked… Our laws protecting children’s privacy needs to keep pace with the technology.”

Udall pressed executives to disclose how their respective companies ensured that new technologies complied with COPPA and whether consumers should be asked to trade their personal data for access to free platforms and apps. His line of questioning came in the wake of multiple reports that thousands of children’s apps, including nearly half of the 6,000 free children’s Android apps in the Google Play Store, were violating COPPA by illegally tracking children’s online activities or sending children’s data to tracking companies.

In light of these reports, as well as a recent New Mexico lawsuit against advertising platforms using apps in the Google Play Store that illegally collect children’s data, Udall sent a letter yesterday to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Joseph Simons and Google CEO Sundar Pichai expressing his concern about potential COPPA violations by mobile apps directed at children. Earlier this year, Udall had also sent letters to digital advertising platforms, such as Tapjoy and MoPub, about their services being used to illegally track children’s online activities. 

Highlights from Senator Udall’s letter to Google include:

On the reasonable expectation of children’s privacy: “As one of two major mobile operating systems, Google has a responsibility to ensure apps on the Android platform follow U.S. law to protect children’s privacy online… American families should have a reasonable expectation of privacy for their children when they use the Android platform and that apps available in the families section do not violate COPPA.” 

On tech companies’ failure to comply with COPPA: “...Thousands of apps in the ‘Designed for Families’ section of the Google Play Store are potentially illegally tracking children’s’ online activities… [and] children’s apps in both the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store sent data to tracking companies, potentially violating COPPA… Unbeknownst to parents, it appears that many of these apps are sharing information… with third-party analytics and advertising platforms.” 

Highlights from Senator Udall’s letter to the FTC include:

On the FTC’s responsibility to safeguard children’s data privacy rights and help Congress improve COPPA: “…I urge [the FTC] to include a separate hearing on the impacts that [large online] platforms and technology are having on children – either through connected devices, targeted video content, or activity online. While I strongly support COPPA, I believe that it is time for the FTC to work with privacy experts and Congress to outline ways to improve and modernize the law.” 

Udall has long championed strengthening consumer privacy rights. In April of this year, in a Senate hearing on Facebook’s abuse of consumer data, he advocated for stronger data privacy regulations to ensure that personal information wouldn’t be misused by internet companies.

The full text of the letters can be viewed here and here.