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COPPA, APPS & A NEW REPORT, OH MY!

by Carly Shuler
March 5, 2012

When people ask me what I write about, my answer is that I discuss the positive potential of new and emerging forms of media. I fundamentally believe that media has the potential to play a positive role in children’s lives, am obsessed with Sesame Street, and feel honored to work for an organization that is named after a woman who believed that television could make a difference in the lives of children. I tend to stay away from writing about issues like violence, privacy and safety – not because they aren’t important, but because I’m not an expert and quite honestly I tend to agree with Dan Donahoo that the attention these issues get is excessive. But over the past 6 months, there has been a firestorm of headlines surrounding recent press released about kids, privacy and apps: FTC Testifies on Protecting Children in a Fast-Changing Marketplace! New Report Raises Privacy Questions About Mobile Applications for Children!!, and most recently Parent App Developers Announce New Privacy Disclosures for Users!!!

So while I don’t normally touch on these types of issues, considering I just released a report about the growth and potential of educational Apps for kids, I figured I should acknowledge what’s going on. So here’s the story. The government organization (the Federal Trade Comission, or FTC) that enforces the eminent rules surrounding children’s online privacy in the US (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA) is undergoing proposed revisions to the act. This is a very good thing! These are the first significant changes to COPPA since its rules were issued in 2000 when things like social networking and mobile apps weren’t even part of our vernacular. Again, a very good thing! So where does the media-storm stem from?

As part of its revision process, the FTC has been taking a series of steps including seeking public comment on its proposed amendments, hosting workshops to gain input from interested parties, and releasing reports to inform both consumers and the FTC’s work. Last week they released the first of these reports, which delves into the hot topic of children’s apps, probing the quality of information available to parents when downloading apps for their kids. The report found that most apps don’t provide the information parents need to determine what data is being collected from their children, how it is being shared, or who will have access to it. While the FTC acknowledges that mobile apps offer considerable opportunities, it expresses concern over the lack of information available to parents prior to downloading mobile apps for their children, and calls on industry to provide greater transparency about their data practices.

I’ve been an advocate of the need for policy work in this space for some time. That being said, it’s a dicey issue, as such policies can hinder creative development and interfere with natural market forces. Considering I’m not a developer myself, I’m not intimately familiar with the potential impact of such policies on developers, so I reached out to a few of my favorite App developers – ones who I know have children’s best interests as their utmost priority, but are also looking to build sustainable businesses. I was pleased to see that they were also excited about the work the FTC is doing:

“Duck Duck Moose believes in the paramount importance of children’s privacy, and believes that a formal policy by the FTC could help parents make more informed decisions when purchasing apps. As parents of young children ourselves, we have taken an extremely conservative approach, and have gone well beyond any legal requirements, to ensure the privacy of children in our apps. We do not collect any information or include any ads, tracking, or integration with third-party software as detailed in our Privacy Policy. By doing so, we can guarantee 100% to parents that no data is being collected from our apps. In taking this approach, we have had to make business sacrifices such as foregoing valuable analytics data about usage of our apps.”
-Caroline Hu Flexer, Duck Duck Moose

“The crew here at Launchpad Toys Galactic Headquarters is excited to see the FTC working towards more sophisticated and nuanced guidelines for personal information data collection in apps. As our Toontastic users can attest, we’re in full support of transparency to the parent – in this day and age of GPS chips, cameras, microphones, and online sharing networks, it’s incumbent upon all developers to make it easy for parents to decide what their kids should or shouldn’t be posting online. Like any website, sophisticated apps need to phone-home to provide generic analytics to the developer, providing us the dashboard necessary to adapt and improve our products. High-fives to the FTC for drawing a distinction between this and “personal information” and pushing to open up communication lines between parent and developer. We’re really excited about all the incredible storytelling taking place in Toontastic and being shared on ToonTube and we’re quite happy to see the FTC working to ensure that other developers are upholding the same standards for safety and parent communication that we’ve built into our global storytelling network for kids.”
-Andy Russell, LaunchPad Toys

It was great to see these developers who respectively represent best-in-class products for both preschool and elementary aged children responding positively. It’s also important to note that both mention the value of anonymous analytics in product development.

I hope this blog helps provide some high-level insight. I’ll end with a personal plea to the relevant parties:

  • - For parents: Do not panic! There hasn’t been any major breach of children’s privacy that we know about – this is simply a case of policy responding to an evolving market. While legitimate issues are being raised, it is important to continue to support quality content and equally important to not write off an app solely because it is collecting data. In many instances, data collection is completely anonymous and is being used to improve the product and provide better experiences for your children. That being said, the FTC report raises an important fact, which is that it is currently difficult to tell what kind of data is being collected and for what purposes it is being used. Until the policies are in place, the onus is on you to try and understand this important issue.
  • - For the FTC: Keep working with developers in the finalization of the proposed regulation. On the heels of the recent efforts to revise COPPA, the leading provider of app analytics (Flurry) disallowed its services to be used by developers of children’s apps, who rely heavily on such analytics to improve their products. Continue dialogue to ensure a balanced approach that puts children’s interests first but which does not unintentionally confine high quality and “family friendly” developers.
  • -To developers: Be transparent and keep lines of communication open. This process gives you the chance to stay ahead of regulators and a concerned public by ensuring your apps and corresponding marketing materials are in full disclosure.
  • - And last but not least, a call to the marketplaces: In my opinion, if there is one relevant party who is currently not bearing their weight on this issue it is the marketplaces. As gatekeepers to the content, the App stores have a huge impact on helping parents (and developers) navigate this jungle, and should take leadership in ensuring that parents have the basic information they need to make informed decisions for their children.

In the long term, Apps will be both better for kids and better for business if we have good policies from the get-go. Perhaps by protecting the kids, we are simultaneously protecting the medium.

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