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Bipartisan senators warn against efforts to weaken children’s online privacy law

A bipartisan group of senators on Friday sent a letter urging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to avoid weakening the country’s children’s online privacy rules as the agency works to update them.

The senators, including leading voices on children’s privacy such as Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), urged the FTC to prioritize the interests of children as the agency updates the rules to enforce the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). 

The FTC is asking for public comment as the consumer protection agency reviews the “effectiveness” of the rule and whether it requires “additional changes” to keep up with the rapidly advancing technology sector.

“We write to strongly caution you against undertaking a process that ultimately weakens children’s privacy instead of improving it,” the senators wrote on Friday.

The letter’s signatories include Sens. Markey, Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn). 

Just last month, Google settled with the FTC for $170 million over charges that it has made millions of dollars from violating COPPA. Though it was a record fine under the 1998 law, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill slammed the FTC for failing to impose a harsher penalty on a company with a revenue of $136.8 billion in 2018 alone. 

“Recent events create concern that the FTC is at risk of favoring the interests of giant tech companies over the interests of parents and children,” the senators wrote on Friday. “We agree that the Rule warrants updating, but we are concerned that the FTC is choosing to update the rule at a time when the Commission appears insufficiently appreciative of the threat some giant tech companies pose to children and parents.” 

The FTC has asked the public to respond to a series of questions about COPPA and how it has been enforced, including its “application to the educational technology sector” and “to voice-enabled connected devices.”

Under COPPA, which went into effect about 20 years ago, websites must obtain parental consent before collecting data on children under 13.

“Your agency’s obligation is to put consumers’ interests first and enforce the law,” the senators wrote. “Therefore, should the FTC move forward with this review and new rule making, we strongly urge you to exercise sound regulatory judgement and to pursue only those changes that prioritize children’s privacy and well-being.” 

The FTC will hold a workshop on COPPA on Monday. 

In March, Markey and Hawley introduced legislation to update COPPA that would address loopholes brought on by the digital era. “COPPA 2.0,” as the senators have dubbed the bill, would prevent internet companies from targeting ads to children and require the companies to provide more insight into how they collect and use children’s data.  

Markey has reintroduced versions of the bill since 2011, but some have speculated it could have legs this session amid heightened concerns about tech companies sucking up vast amounts of data on all users, including children.

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