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Senators urge FTC to enforce child privacy laws

Lawmakers wrote to the FTC Commissioner, asking her to enforce new child protection measures

Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Representatives Kathy Castor (FL-14) and Lori Trahan (MA-03) today wrote to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to ask it to use its powers to ensure that large online platform operators handle children's privacy more responsibly. 

The Senators want the FTC to enforce policies outlined in the UK's Age Appropriate Design Code (AADC). The Code, released by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) in September 2020, came into effect last month. It dictates 15 principles that online services firms need to follow in order to better protect children's privacy on the web. 

The AADC states that providers of online services to children should work in the child’s best interests and offer privacy policy information in language suited to the child's age. It forbids service providers from using data in ways that are detrimental to their wellbeing and bans the use of “nudge” techniques that encourage children to give up their privacy. It also enforces default high privacy settings and disabling of geolocation functions. 

The Code, which also applies to connected toys and devices, is not a law. Still, the ICO takes it into account when evaluating companies' compliance with regulations such as GDPR. Violation of those regulations, which the UK government is pressing to reform, can carry financial penalties. 

The letter highlighted several steps that technology companies took in response to the code. Instagram introduced private accounts for young people by default to provide more protection from predators and some advertising, the senators pointed out. YouTube defaulted to making uploads private and turning off location history for users under 18. TikTok disabled messaging for users under 16. 

"We write to urge the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to use all its authority to ensure that these powerful companies comply with their new policies, to hold them accountable if they fail to do so, and to prioritize the protection of children’s and teen’s privacy," the letter said. The senators suggested using Section Five of the FTC Act, which forbids deceptive practices, to enforce the commitments. 

"These policy changes are no substitute for congressional action on children’s privacy, but they are important steps towards making the internet safer for young users, the letter added. 

The letter follows a ground-breaking testimony by whistleblower Frances Haugen before Congress this week. Haugen accused Instagram owner Facebook of disregarding teens' mental health and putting profit before people. 

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