How to Comply with the COPPA Law

Internet security and privacy for children is taken very seriously. Congress wrote a law in 2000 to help mitigate the varied approaches to online privacy for children and provided guidelines companies must follow.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) applies to the online collection of personal information from children under 13. The rules spell out what a Web site operator must include in a privacy policy, when and how to seek verifiable consent from a parent and what responsibilities an operator has to protect children’s privacy and safety online.

This tutorial teaches you the requirements COPPA places on your firm and how it is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Who Must Comply with COPPA

If you operate a commercial Web site or an online service directed to children under 13 that collects personal information from children or if you operate a general audience Web site and have actual knowledge that you are collecting personal information from children, you must comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

  • To determine whether a Web site is directed to children, consider several factors, including the subject matter; visual or audio content; the age of models on the site; language; whether advertising on the Web site is directed to children; information regarding the age of the actual or intended audience; and whether a site uses animated characters or other child-oriented features.
  • To determine whether an entity is an “operator” with respect to information collected at a site, consider who owns and controls the information; who pays for the collection and maintenance of the information; what the pre-existing contractual relationships are in connection with the information; and what role the Web site plays in collecting or maintaining the information.

Defining Personal Information in Relation to COPPA

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and Rule apply to individually identifiable information about a child that is collected online, such as full name, home address, email address, telephone number or any other information that would allow someone to identify or contact the child. The Act and Rule also cover other types of information — for example, hobbies, interests and information collected through cookies or other types of tracking mechanisms — when they are tied to individually identifiable information.

The Privacy Notice

An operator must post a link to a notice of its information practices on the home page of its Web site or online service and at each area where it collects personal information from children. An operator of a general audience site with a separate children’s area must post a link to its notice on the home page of the children’s area.

The link to the privacy notice must be clear and prominent. Operators may want to use a larger font size or a different color type on a contrasting background to make it stand out. A link in small print at the bottom of the page — or a link that is indistinguishable from other links on your site — is not considered clear and prominent.

Content of the Privacy Policy

The notice must be clearly written and understandable; it should not include any unrelated or confusing materials. It must state the following information:

  • The name and contact information (address, telephone number and email address) of all operators collecting or maintaining children’s personal information through the Web site or online service. If more than one operator is collecting information at the site, the site may select and provide contact information for only one operator who will respond to all inquiries from parents about the site’s privacy policies. Still, the names of all the operators must be listed in the notice.
  • The kinds of personal information collected from children (for example, name, address, email address, hobbies, etc.) and how the information is collected — directly from the child or passively, say, through cookies.
  • How the operator uses the personal information. For example, is it for marketing back to the child? Notifying contest winners? Allowing the child to make the information publicly available through a chat room?
  • Whether the operator discloses information collected from children to third parties. If so, the operator also must disclose the kinds of businesses in which the third parties are engaged; the general purposes for which the information is used; and whether the third parties have agreed to maintain the confidentiality and security of the information.
  • That the parent has the option to agree to the collection and use of the child’s information without consenting to the disclosure of the information to third parties.
  • That the operator may not require a child to disclose more information than is reasonably necessary to participate in an activity as a condition of participation.
  • That the parent can review the child’s personal information, ask to have it deleted and refuse to allow any further collection or use of the child’s information. The notice also must state the procedures for the parent to follow.

Direct Notice to Parents

The notice to parents must contain the same information included on the notice on the Web site. In addition, an operator must notify a parent that it wishes to collect personal information from the child; that the parent’s consent is required for the collection, use and disclosure of the information; and how the parent can provide consent. The notice to parents must be written clearly and understandably, and must not contain any unrelated or confusing information. An operator may use any one of a number of methods to notify a parent, including sending an email message to the parent or a notice by postal mail.

Verifiable Parental Consent

Before collecting, using or disclosing personal information from a child, an operator must obtain verifiable parental consent from the child’s parent. This means an operator must make reasonable efforts (taking into consideration available technology) to ensure that before personal information is collected from a child, a parent of the child receives notice of the operator’s information practices and consents to those practices.

Internal Uses of Personal Information

Operators may use email to get parental consent for all internal uses of personal information, such as marketing back to a child based on his or her preferences or communicating promotional updates about site content, as long as they take additional steps to increase the likelihood that the parent has, in fact, provided the consent. For example, operators might seek confirmation from a parent in a delayed confirmatory email, or confirm the parent’s consent by letter or phone call.

Public Disclosures

When operators want to disclose a child’s personal information to third parties or make it publicly available (for example, through a chat room or message board), the sliding scale requires them to use a more reliable method of consent, including:

  • getting a signed form from the parent via postal mail or facsimile;
  • accepting and verifying a credit card number in connection with a transaction;
  • taking calls from parents, through a toll-free telephone number staffed by trained personnel;
  • email accompanied by digital signature;

But in the case of a monitored chat room, if all individually identifiable information is stripped from postings before it is made public — and the information is deleted from the operator’s records — an operator does not have to get prior parental consent.

Disclosures to Third Parties

An operator must give a parent the option to agree to the collection and use of the child’s personal information without agreeing to the disclosure of the information to third parties. However, when a parent agrees to the collection and use of their child’s personal information, the operator may release that information to others who uses it solely to provide support for the internal operations of the website or service, including technical support and order fulfillment.

Exceptions

The regulations include several exceptions that allow operators to collect a child’s email address without getting the parent’s consent in advance. These exceptions cover many popular online activities for kids, including contests, online newsletters, homework help and electronic postcards.

Prior parental consent is not required when:

  • an operator collects a child’s or parent’s email address to provide notice and seek consent;
  • an operator collects an email address to respond to a one-time request from a child and then deletes it;
  • an operator collects an email address to respond more than once to a specific request — say, for a subscription to a newsletter. In this case, the operator must notify the parent that it is communicating regularly with the child and give the parent the opportunity to stop the communication before sending or delivering a second communication to a child;
  • an operator collects a child’s name or online contact information to protect the safety of a child who is participating on the site. In this case, the operator must notify the parent and give him or her the opportunity to prevent further use of the information;
  • an operator collects a child’s name or online contact information to protect the security or liability of the site or to respond to law enforcement, if necessary, and does not use it for any other purpose.

New Notice for Consent if Policies Change

An operator is required to send a new notice and request for consent to parents if there are material changes in the collection, use or disclosure practices to which the parent had previously agreed. Take the case of the operator who got parental consent for a child to participate in contests that require the child to submit limited personal information, but who now wants to offer the child chat rooms. Or, consider the case of the operator who wants to disclose the child’s information to third parties who are in materially different lines of business from those covered by the original consent — for example, marketers of diet pills rather than marketers of stuffed animals. In these cases, the Rule requires new notice and consent.

Access Verification

At a parent’s request, operators must disclose the general kinds of personal information they collect online from children (for example, name, address, telephone number, email address, hobbies), as well as the specific information collected from children who visit their sites. Operators must use reasonable procedures to ensure they are dealing with the child’s parent before they provide access to the child’s specific information.

They can use a variety of methods to verify the parent’s identity, including:

  • obtaining a signed form from the parent via postal mail or facsimile;
  • accepting and verifying a credit card number;
  • taking calls from parents on a toll-free telephone number staffed by trained personnel;
  • email accompanied by digital signature;
  • email accompanied by a PIN or password obtained through one of the verification methods above.

Operators who follow one of these procedures acting in good faith to a request for parental access are protected from liability under federal and state law for inadvertent disclosures of a child’s information to someone who purports to be a parent.

Revoking & Deleting Consent for Information Access

At any time, a parent may revoke his/her consent, refuse to allow an operator to further use or collect their child’s personal information, and direct the operator to delete the information. In turn, the operator may terminate any service provided to the child, but only if the information at issue is reasonably necessary for the child’s participation in that activity. For example, an operator may require children to provide their email addresses to participate in a chat room so the operator can contact a youngster if he is misbehaving in the chat room. If, after giving consent, a parent asks the operator to delete the child’s information, the operator may refuse to allow the child to participate in the chat room in the future. If other activities on the Web site do not require the child’s email address, the operator must allow the child access to those activities.

Safe Harbors

Industry groups or others can create self-regulatory programs to govern participants’ compliance with theĀ Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule. These guidelines must include independent monitoring and disciplinary procedures and must be submitted to the Commission for approval. The Commission will publish the guidelines and seek public comment in considering whether to approve the guidelines. An operator’s compliance with Commission-approved self-regulatory guidelines will generally serve as a “safe harbor” in any enforcement action for violations of the Rule.

If you own a website which has the potential to be used by children under 13, you must follow the rules and regulations for COPPA.

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