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FTC: Study Finds Growth in Kids App Disclosures

The FTC is citing a new global study that found that in the past three years, more than twice as many kids apps have a direct link to a privacy policy that is available to parents before downloading, but the majority still don't have one.

The FTC did not release the study, but said it would instead announce the findings in a series of blog posts.

A December FTC 2012 survey found that only 20% of apps had the direct links, while a recent survey found that number had grown to 45%, blogged Kristin Cohen and Christina Yeung of the Bureau of Consumer Protection in the first such installment. They called that a case of the glass being both half full and half empty, saying that while developers were doing a better job, for many parents there was still no easy way to figure out what data was being collected about their kids and how it was being used.

The 2012 study found that in 2012 many apps shared information with third parties without informing parents. Combined with limited access to privacy policies that made it "nearly impossible" to evaluate those policies before an app started collecting info.

The recent study, of 364 apps including on Google Play and Apple's app store, found that 164 of them had the direct links to privacy policies, while 38 had the policies in harder to reach places. Only 48 of the apps had short-form descriptions about "sharing of personal information with third parties, the use of persistent identifiers, in-app purchases, social network integration, or the presence of advertising."

The FTC bloggers said they did not know why direct links had increased, but pointed to the FTC's changes in the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule in January 2013 that broadened the definition of personal information to include geolocation, photos, videos, audio and tracking cookies. "Perhaps the renewed focus on kids’ privacy encouraged some app developers to be more transparent about their practices, regardless of whether their apps are covered by COPPA," they said.

They also pointed out that Google and Apple have added spaces on their app promotion pages for privacy disclosures and Apple requires kids apps to include a direct link.

Not mentioned were the years-long efforts by the Center for Digital Democracy and its founder, Jeff Chester, for more transparency, and less data collection, in kids apps—and for the FTC to take a more muscular approach to the issue.

Chester didn't see a lot to cheer in that not-quite half-full glass, suggesting its contents were insufficient at any level to deal with the issue.

"It’s time for the commission to crack down on kids apps," Chester told B&C.  "The study confirms that app developers and gatekeepers such as Google aren’t protecting their privacy. Despite more visible links, we know that few people read privacy policies. They are a flimsy Band-Aid for a serious problem. We expect the commission to pursue cases to ensure that no data can be gathered and used by apps without meaningful informed prior parental consent.  We intend to press the agency when advocates next meet with Chairwoman [Edith] Ramirez and the commissioners."

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.