Policy

Who needs Congress? The FTC is already taking on teen privacy.

Senators are due to hear from companies like TikTok and YouTube on Tuesday, but the FTC has already made moves that could radically change how the social media sites think about the privacy of kids and teens.

FTC building exterior

The FTC has already expressed an interest in protecting teens.

Photo: bpperry/Getty Images

Congress is still feeling out the best approaches to making rules for young social media users, but the FTC is already moving forward with plans that could make the internet safer for children and teenagers.

On Tuesday, the same senators who heard from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen about mental health concerns for teens on Instagram will follow up by hearing from Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok about similar worries on their platforms.

The hearing, however, comes more than a month after the FTC declared it was making investigations of issues relating to teens a priority for the next 10 years.

It was a quiet announcement — just one of more than a dozen new priority areas where the commission has said it would expedite its ability to compel information from companies. Yet as Congress dithers, the announcement highlights the ways an ambitious and tech-skeptical FTC is trying to respond to changing assumptions about kids and teens online and the policies that social media services built themselves around.

"There are a lot of levers that the FTC can pull," said Phyllis Marcus, now a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth who as an FTC staffer oversaw the commission's last rewrite of its regulations on online privacy for kids under 13.

For years, the rules Marcus worked on were essentially the last word in the privacy of young Americans online. Congress passed the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act in 1998, which enabled the FTC to write rules requiring sites directed to children under 13 to obtain parental consent to collect kids' information. The latest amendments to the rule were adopted in 2013.

The rules are more or less why the major social media services say they don't allow users 12 and under to sign up or use their platforms. For users 13 and up, data collection, whether for ad-targeting or for-profit edtech, is fair game — though the sites are well aware they have plenty of underage users, and YouTube and TikTok both paid fines over alleged COPPA violations in 2019.

Now, however, new information, such as Haugen's data about Instagram's effects on teenage girls, is leading lawmakers to wonder about how better to protect teens online.

"There may have been a viewpoint in some areas that teens were more like adults and kids were kids," Marcus said. "I think that notion is changing."

The FTC is mulling a full-scale regulation to govern online privacy, although the move would likely generate significant blowback and getting the votes to launch the rulemaking will probably require bringing on board a third Democratic commissioner, who is still awaiting Senate confirmation. Additionally, the FTC is still processing answers to questions it sent in 2020 to Facebook, Snap, TikTok, YouTube, Twitter, Discord and other companies about their data practices, including with regard to children and teens.

Any new rules the FTC adopts under the auspices of COPPA must, by law, focus on children 12 and under. That means the answers the agency receives from the companies could suggest ways that the commission could expand what information the rule covers and how it treats the responsibilities of platforms versus those of creators with regard to children who do use Big Tech services. The FTC could also weigh in on how the regulations should treat technologies that have emerged since 2013.

In 2019, for instance, the FTC asked for comments on how its children's online privacy regulations should approach "interactive gaming, or other similar interactive media" as well as the role of creators. The latter question is particularly important because, as part of YouTube's response to its record settlement, channel owners bear the brunt of flagging their content as being primarily for children within the FTC's definitions. The responsibility — and the resulting loss of data that feeds ad revenue — falls to creators despite the platform's unique access to information on users and armies of lawyers.

Results from the FTC's survey about data practices could also inform any future commission actions and guidance on privacy for teens, although any such rules would not fall under COPPA as it currently stands.

In addition, some children's privacy advocates in Congress are trying to push companies into putting into place in the U.S. protections they already use for teens in a handful of nations with stronger regulation — with consequences from the FTC if the companies fall short.

Since September, companies operating in the U.K. have had to comply with the country's 15-point "Age Appropriate Design Code," which urges the strictest privacy protections for the youngest children, with progressively looser guardrails suggested up to age 17. Three Democratic lawmakers led by Sen. Ed Markey, who as a member of the House was key to the passage of COPPA, have urged companies to offer the protections to kids and teens in the U.S. Some social media sites have even announced they'll bring certain changes they made in response to the UK's rules to the U.S.

In response to the companies' voluntary commitments in the U.S., the lawmakers wrote to FTC chair Lina Khan earlier in October and urged the commission "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 three Democrats cited in particular the FTC's authority to punish companies that violate their public promises — a power that, thanks to the ubiquity of privacy policies but dearth of privacy laws, has made the commission the de facto federal privacy regulator for the U.S. Any potential new probes, meanwhile, would get fast-tracked from the policy the FTC announced of prioritizing matters relating to kids and teens.

The lawmakers, who also included Reps. Kathy Castor and Lori Trahan, seemed to acknowledge that Congress itself has fallen behind public concerns, but in the meantime, the FTC already has power to fill some gaps.

"These policy changes are no substitute for congressional action on children's privacy," the three lawmakers wrote, "but they are important steps towards making the internet safer for young users."

Fintech

Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep Reading Show less
FTA
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.
Enterprise

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep Reading Show less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

Enterprise

Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins