The revised Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”) Rules, as discussed here previously were meant to bring regulations in line with, in the FTC’s words, the “rapid-fire pace of technological changes to the online environment” that have taken place since COPPA was passed in 2000. This week’s Boston Globe article about the new public television production, WGBH’s “Plum Landing,” provides an interesting illustration of the impact of the revised COPPA Rule.
Plum Landing is not a television show, but rather a series of videos, online games and activities spanning a variety of platforms (e.g., computers, tablets, and smartphones), with an emphasis on user-produced content and interactivity. As the content is aimed at children ages 7-9, potential COPPA issues abound.
The 2013 revision of COPPA clarified that the operator of a website must comply with COPPA’s parental notification and consent requirements not only if it “request[s] that children submit personal information online,” but instead if it “request[s], prompt[s], or encourage[es] a child to submit personal information online.” Consistent with that approach, Plum Landing seems to do all it can to discourage submission of “personal information” even while encouraging users to interact as much as possible. Creating an account requires no name or email address. The user simply enters a user name and chooses a password. The site warns that the user name should include no personal information and prods users to pick an activity and a string of numbers, encouraging monikers like “baseball2465” and “skateboard3296” rather than actual names. Password retrieval too does not use an email address, but rather a secret question process involving choosing a favorite animal, food, and color.
The interactive elements likewise seem to contemplate COPPA’s definition of “personal information.” Plum Landing uses a smartphone app that allows children to participate in a “photo hunt” in which they photograph animals, plants, and other features of the environment and submit them to Plum Landing’s website. The website does not accept photos that have children anywhere in them, since COPPA prohibits inclusion of “a photograph, video, or audio file where such file contains a child’s image or voice”. The app does not collect geolocation data, because “geolocation information sufficient to identify street name and name or a city or town” is also COPPA “personal information.” Plum Landing’s “Nature Sketchpad,” another prominent feature, allows users to submit digital drawings of various natural features – such as tumbleweeds – but these must also not contain “personal information.” (Thus, the young digital DaVincis must leave their works unsigned.)
It is important to remember that even online services directed at an older audience must comply with COPPA if the site operator becomes aware that it is collecting personal information from children under 13. And operators should also remember that COPPA covers more than just websites – it applies to apps, gaming platforms, and other online services.