December 20, 2012 | All About Advertising Law Blog

Ensuring Privacy and Compliance in the World of Children's Apps: A Brief Guide to the FTC's Second Report on Mobile Apps for Kids

3 min

The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of Angry Birds® danc’d in their heads,
And Mama with her iPad®, and I with my Nook®, just stared at the screens, all chatting forsook…

No one can deny the prominent role electronic devices play in our daily lives, and children, unsurprisingly, have jumped on the technology bandwagon with enthusiasm. A Nielsen Company survey reveals that 48% of surveyed children ages 6-12 want an iPad above all else this year for the holidays. Savvy mobile app developers would be wise to take advantage of this ever-growing market, but they should do so while being cognizant of and compliant with applicable federal laws and regulations regarding the collection of information from kids.

On December 12, 2012, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) released a report entitled “Mobile Apps for Kids: Disclosures Still Not Making the Grade.”  This report is the second FTC report on children’s privacy issues surrounding mobile apps this year. In this second report, the FTC reveals the results from a survey it conducted in which it compared the actual practices of children’s apps to their accompanying disclosures. After analyzing the survey results, the FTC expressed disappointment that many children’s apps collect and transmit children’s information from mobile devices (unique identifiers, phone numbers, and geolocation data), provide links to social networking services, and allow for in-app purchases without disclosing any of these practices to parents prior to app download.

If a mobile app developer wants to develop an app for kids, they should be sure to:

  1. Incorporate privacy protections into the design of the app (“privacy by design”). This means considering privacy as you design the app by making the default information sharing practices and sharing settings consistent with users expectations, providing easy to locate privacy controls, and getting express consent from users for data collection or sharing that is inconsistent with what users expect.
  2. Provide parents with clear and understandable choices about the data collection and sharing allowed by the kids’ app in the disclosures. Privacy policies should appear in the app store and other easy-to-find locations prior to download.
  3. Include details in the disclosures of how data is collected, transmitted, and shared through the children’s app. Make sure what you say about your app’s practices is clear, consistent, and truthful, and fully discloses the app’s data collection and sharing practices.

Importantly, the report also reveals the FTC’s plan to launch multiple nonpublic investigations of mobile app developers. These investigations will seek to determine whether the targeted mobile app developers are in compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”) and whether they are engaged in any unfair or deceptive trade practices in violation of the FTC Act. Moreover, the FTC indicates in the report that it plans to conduct a third survey of kids’ apps and to develop and issue consumer education targeted at parents. The FTC hopes consumer education will help parents navigate the mobile app marketplace and avoid those children’s apps that fail to provide sufficient disclosures.

In light of this most recent report, the settlement of the FTC’s first enforcement action against a mobile app developer for potential COPPA violations, and revisions to COPPA that came out this week, the FTC has demonstrated a strong interest in children’s privacy issues. Developers of mobile apps would be well advised to review their disclosures and practices used for kids’ mobile apps to ensure that they comply with relevant federal laws and regulations.

This article is also available on Venable's Advertising and Marketing Blog.