The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (the “FTC”) is the federal agency charged with enforcing consumer protection laws that prevent fraud, deception and unfair business practices, including Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (“COPPA”).  The FTC just announced settlements with online service provider Yelp, Inc. and mobile application developer TinyCo, Inc. over collecting information from pre-teens, allegedly in violation of COPPA.

COPPA imposes requirements on operators of websites or online services that are directed to children under 13 years of age, or that have actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information online from a child under 13 years of age.  Many companies employ age-screening mechanisms to ensure that such children do not use their websites or online services, thus allowing the companies to avoid the strict requirements of COPPA.

The Yelp application did have such an age-screening mechanism to screen out potential users under 13 years of age– but it did not work. Although registrants were asked for their dates of birth, the Yelp application allowed them to sign up regardless of what date they entered, allowing in children under 13.  Thus, the FTC complaint against Yelp alleged that personal information was collected from children without first notifying parents and obtaining their consent, as required by COPPA. 

The FTC’s complaint did not allege that the TinyCo application had an improper age-screening mechanism, but that TinyCo failed to comply with its COPPA obligations with respect to its applications that the FTC determined to be directed to children under 13.

The companies agreed to settle charges that they collected children’s information in violation of COPPA, which settlement included the payment of steep civil penalties, deletion of the relevant personal information, and a requirement to adopt and submit a COPPA compliance report to the FTC.

These cases should be a wake-up call for all mobile application developers and operators of websites or online services to make sure that their age-screening and other mechanisms function accurately, and that they are otherwise in compliance with COPPA requirements, if appropriate.

The FTC’s press release is available here.