Protocol | 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."

Protocol | Workplace

Google contractor says she was fired for "ungoogley" behavior

According to a charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board, "ungoogley" is Google's term for having a bad attitude.

A contractor at Google staffing firm Modis claims she was fired from her job after asking about pay.

Photo: Future Publishing/Getty Images

A contractor at Google staffing firm Modis claims she was fired from her job for "ungoogley" behavior after asking about holiday pay at a meeting with management, according to a charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board by a lawyer for the Alphabet Workers Union.

Tuesday Carne said in an interview with Protocol that she was fired after just nine days of working in the data contracting facility in South Carolina. Carne's termination letter (which Protocol reviewed) called her behavior at the meeting "unacceptable and 'ungoogley'" and claimed that her behavior was the reason for her firing.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email:, where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

The fintech developers who made mobile banking as routine as texting or online shopping aren't done. The next frontier for innovation is open banking – fintech builders are enabling consumers to be at the center of where and how their data is used to provide the services they want and need.

Most people don't even realize they're using open banking services today. If they connected their investment and banking accounts in a personal financial management solution or app, they're using open banking. Perhaps they've seen ads about how they can improve their credit score by uploading pay stubs or utility records to that same app – this is also powered by open banking.

Keep Reading Show less
Bob Schukai
Bob Schukai is Executive Vice President of Technology Development, New Digital Infrastructure & Fintech at Mastercard, where he leads the technical design, execution and support of innovative open banking and fintech solutions, as well as next generation technologies to support global payment and data capabilities. Prior to Mastercard, Schukai’s work focused on cognitive computing, financial technology, blockchain, user experience and digital identity. He is also a member of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Protocol | Policy

Biden FCC nominee Sohn is walking a tightrope with Republicans

Gigi Sohn faces plenty of GOP opposition, but the longtime net-neutrality advocate is hoping to pick up a little Republican support as she deals with Democrats’ narrow margins.

Gigi Sohn’s work for net neutrality has become an issue in her confirmation hearings for the FCC.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Gigi Sohn wouldn’t mind getting support from a Republican or two, and it’d certainly make her path back to the Federal Communications Commission easier.

During her Senate Commerce Committee confirmation on Wednesday, Sohn, a progressive favorite and longtime net-neutrality advocate, touted her commitment to ensuring a diversity of voices on the airwaves, her past fights for small conservative networks she personally disagrees with and her habit of socializing with those she battles on policy.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Protocol | Workplace

Microsoft Teams is going after small businesses

Microsoft Teams Essentials offers longer, bigger meetings for a relatively small price tag.

Companies can now buy a standalone version of Teams.

Photo: Mika Baumeister/Unsplash

Microsoft announced Wednesday that companies can now buy a standalone version of Teams — one of its most important products and a major player in work messaging and video chat, alongside Slack and Zoom. The product, called Microsoft Teams Essentials, aims to give small or medium-sized businesses a communication hub that costs less than its competitors'.

Microsoft will charge small businesses $4 per user per month for Microsoft Teams Essentials, while Zoom’s cheapest paid plan is $14.99 per user per month and Slack’s is $6.67 per user each month, when billed annually. The free version of Microsoft Teams still exists, as do the various other Microsoft 365 plans that include Teams. Teams Essentials offers longer meeting times, larger group meetings and more cloud storage.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at

Protocol | Policy

5 things to know about NTIA nominee Alan Davidson

If confirmed, the former Googler will play a key role in shaping the unprecedented expansion of broadband across the country.

Alan Davidson has been nominated to lead the NTIA.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing to confirm President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — a traditionally somewhat-sleepy role that is taking on new prominence in the wake of the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

That law gives the NTIA authority to write the rules and oversee the distribution of $42.5 billion in broadband infrastructure grants to states, a duty that will require it to massively scale its internal resources. To lead the charge, Biden has nominated Alan Davidson, a well-known figure in Washington who has spent his career cycling through government, industry and advocacy groups. If confirmed, Davidson would have perhaps the most important role in guiding an unprecedented expansion of internet access in America.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Latest Stories