Business Compliance with Children's Online Privacy Protection Act

Chrissie Scelsi is the principal of Scelsi Entertainment and New Media Law in Port Charlotte, Florida. She focuses her practice in entertainment and intellectual property law, including but not limited to matters for clients in music, film, video games, interactive and social media, as well as copyright, trademark and general business counseling. 

I saw a statistic recently that really struck me, as it may have for you as well. Mashable reported that a study by Internet security firm AVG found that in the U.S. 92 percent of children have an online presence by the age of two, and 73 percent in western Europe. This means that for these children, their online presence could potentially cover their entire lives, while for their parents it may only stretch back a decade into their past.

Much as this is an important consideration for parents raising children in the age of social media, it is also an important consideration for us as social media professionals as we share, teach, engage and develop new means of sharing through social media. As such, it is important to understand the laws that govern privacy, particularly that of children.

As Social Media Club is an international organization, I fully intend to discuss the privacy laws of different parts of the world and how they impact social media professionals in future posts. To cover all of the laws in one post could fill volumes, so for this post I’m starting with the United States law called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Business Compliance

COPPA prohibits operators of websites and online services from collecting or disclosing what is called ‘personally identifiable information’ from children under the age of 13 without parental consent. Personally identifiable information includes the child’s name, birth date, home address, e-mail address, and Social Security number. If an operator is going to collect such information, COPPA requires the operator to provide notice to parents of what information will be collected and how it will be used. This law applies to all sites collecting birth date information, and you may have noticed that a lot of sites restrict their use to users over the age of 13 to avoid violating it. This law is specifically addressed at sites and services directed at children, or that have knowledge that they are collecting information from children under the age of 13.

Violations of COPPA are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, which has levied large fines against companies who have collected personal information. Sony BMG reached a settlement of $1,000,000 with the FTC after 196 of its sites collected personal information from users that indicated they were under the age of 13.

Violating COPPA can mean not only financial penalties but also bad PR for sites and services. A best practice for site and online service operators is to follow the guidelines put in place by the Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the Better Business Bureau for complying with COPPA, which operates a safe harbor program for participating operators. The FTC site also provides helpful information about how to comply with COPPA.

While COPPA applies to the collection of certain types of data, it is important to keep in mind that certain types of services and games collect other types of information about all of their users. This can include how long users spend in the game or service, what activities are carried out in it, what advertisements are viewed, achievements made, and items purchased, among other types of information. In addition, sites or services that allow users to post their own content need to consider the rights and potential consequences of allowing them to do so.

It is a good idea for operators to not only have a privacy policy on the site, but also enact those procedures, particularly as they apply to children. In addition, having a well drafted terms of use for the site or service that sets out what constitutes proper use of the site, and the consequences for violating the terms of use.

For further information on complying with COPPA or protecting your children online, visit the FTC site for businesses or consumers

I look forward to discussing more issues of privacy and social media with you in the future. As always, this post is not intended to be legal advice and is not a substitute for the advice of a licensed attorney in your area. I wish you all a happy new year and a great 2011. 


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