Request for Investigation of Amazon, Inc.’s Echo Dot Kids Edition for Violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

On May 9th, 2019, IPR filed a request with the FTC on behalf of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy, and other consumer groups that the agency investigate whether Amazon Inc.’s Echo Dot kids edition is violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Request to Investigate Google’s Unfair and Deceptive Practices in Marketing Apps for Children. 

On December 19th, 2018, IPR filed a request to the FTC on behalf of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy, and 20 other consumer groups that the agency investigate whether Google is misrepresenting to parents that the apps in the Family section of the Play Store are child-appropriate when they are not, in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act. Given the enormous volume of apps available on the Play Store, parents necessarily rely on Google’s categorization of apps and age ratings to select Android apps that are safe and appropriate for their children. Parents reasonably expect that an app directed to children would comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). They do not expect that children’s apps will engage in deceptive or unfair advertising practices or include content inappropriate for children. Moreover, Google’s eligibility criteria for inclusion in the Family category requires that apps comply with COPPA, as well as Google’s policies regarding advertising and content. Yet, as detailed in the request to investigate, we found that many apps in the Google Play Store Family section are not appropriate for children as they violate Google’s own criteria for inclusion, and violate COPPA by collecting personal information from children without giving notice to parents and obtaining verifiable parental consent. Three of the clinic’s students, Rachel Johns, Allegra Kauffman, and Bridget O’Connell, researched and documented app practices, researched and analyzed applicable FTC doctrine, and drafted portions of the complaint. They also presented their work in a webinar for one of our clients, CCFC.

Request to investigate Google’s YouTube Online service and Advertising Practices for Violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

In April 2018, on behalf of the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) and other non-profit organizations, the clinic asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate whether YouTube was violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).  YouTube is the most popular online platform among children, and many YouTube channels are specifically targeted to children under age 13.  The request for investigation showed that for years, Google had been knowingly collecting personal data from children without complying with the COPPA requirements.  It asked the FTC to enjoin Google from committing further violations of COPPA, impose effective means for monitoring compliance, and assess civil penalties.

Request to Investigate the Practice of “Influencer Marketing” Directed to Children

The term “influencer marketing” refers to the increasingly common practice of marketing brands and products through social media influencers – people whose implicit or tacit endorsement of a product is designed to influence viewers and followers to want that product.  In October 2016, the clinic filed a complaint on behalf of the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) and Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) alleging that influencer advertising directed to children was an unfair and deceptive trade practice under the FTC Act.  It urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take enforcement actions and to issue policy guidance.

The FTC has taken several steps to require disclosures of influencer advertising.  In April 2017, it sent more than 90 letters reminding influencers and marketers to clearly and conspicuously disclose their relationships when promoting or endorsing products through social media.  Subsequently, the FTC sent warning letters to 21 of the 90 companies and updated its Endorsement Guides to address specific questions from social media influencers and marketers about whether and how to disclose material connections in their posts.  While these efforts are most welcome, unfortunately, none specifically address influencer ads targeted to children.

Complaint against the makers of the My Friend Cayla Doll

In December 2016, the clinic, along with co-counsel Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), filed a complaint against Genesis Toys and Nuance Communications, makers of the My Friend Cayla doll.  Cayla is connected to the internet-connected, which allows her to “talk” with children by capturing and recording children’s voices and analyzing the recordings to determine a response.  The complaint filed on behalf of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC),  Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) and Consumers Union, alleged violations of both the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and Section 5 of the FTC Act.

The complaint argued that Genesis Toys violated COPPA by not providing a clear privacy policy, collecting personal information from children without verifiable parental consent, and retaining information for longer than was necessary.  The complaint alleged that Nuance Communications, which provided the voice recognition service for the doll, collected and used children’s personal information without consent.  In addition, the complaint alleged that Genesis acted unfairly in failing to use reasonable security practices to prevent unauthorized individuals from connecting to the doll and listening to children’s conversations.  It also engaged in deceptive practices by failing to disclose product placements in the doll’s pre-programed content.  Although the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has not taken enforcement action against these companies, many U.S. retailers have stopped selling the doll.

Comment on COPPA Safe Harbor Program

In spring 2018, the FTC requested comments on the Entertainment Software Ratings Board’s (ESRB’s) proposed changes to its Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) safe harbor program.  The clinic filed comments on behalf of Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) and Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC)asking the Federal Trace Commission (FTC) to reject ESRB’s application unless it modified its proposal.  ESRB’s proposed changes would have eliminated annual compliance reports required by law, unnecessarily narrowed the definition of “personal data” subject to disclosure under the program, and otherwise weakened protections for children.  The comments offered specific suggestions on how the ESRB’s proposal could be amended to address these problems.

On August, 2018, the FTC issued a letter finding merit in nine of these specific suggestions and requiring ESRB to modify its safe harbor program accordingly.