Privacy Groups File Complaint Against Amazon at FTC

Privacy groups have filed a complaint at the Federal Trade Commission against Amazon's Echo Dot Kids Edition alleging its collection and storage of information violates COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) in at least a couple of ways. 

That is according to a copy of the complaint obtained by Multichannel News

The complaint, being filed Thursday (May 9) by the Center for Digital Democracy and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (the groups say others will be joining the complaint) comes as the FTC is under pressure to better protect consumers from online data misuse and abuse. 

The groups want the FTC to investigate that allegation and take any necessary action to ensure compliance. 

Told of the planned complaint an Amazon spokesperson said: “FreeTime on Alexa and Echo Dot Kids Edition are compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Customers can find more information on Alexa and overall privacy practices here."

Related: FTC's Simons Says We Are Cop on Privacy Beat 

The Center and CCFC say they have tested the device and found that it retains children's data even after parents believe it has been deleted, that Amazon ignores those requests to delete info or "forget" a child's information, which violates COPPA, they say. In addition, they argue that Amazon's "maze" of multiple privacy policies are confusing and even contradictory, and thus misleading, and thus another COPPA violation. 

The complaint paints a rather frightening picture of the potential privacy implications as children "grow up with the devices. They argue that children could start sharing information with Alexa as they would with a friend, including if they are sad or being bullied at school, information Amazon will record, transcribe, and store in The Cloud "forever."  

“It’s shameful that Amazon is ensnaring children and their valuable data in its race to market dominance,” said Jeff Chester of CDD. "COPPA was enacted to empower parents to have control over their children’s data, but at every turn Echo Dot Kids thwarts parents who want to limit what Amazon knows about their child. The FTC must hold Amazon accountable to make clear that voice-activated, always-on devices must respect children’s privacy." 

The groups say Amazon's "always on" candy-colored listening device is often placed in a child's bedroom, where it encourages kids to interact with it/her (Alexa) as though with a friend and download "skills," which is where the misleading privacy policy allegation comes in. "In clear violation of COPPA, Amazon disavows responsibility for the data collection practices of Alexa skills for kids and tells parents to check the skill developers’ privacy policies. To make matters worse, 85% of skills for kids have no privacy policy posted," they say. 

According to a source familiar with the company's thinking, Amazon asserts that the "skills" do not access or collect personal info, that parents can delete voice recordings in the Alexa app or on the website, that parents have to give their consent before services like FreeTime can be used, and that there are multiple entry points for viewing its privacy policy, including during Echo Dot Kids set-up.

Amazon provided some of that context publicly in a blog post.

Some of the groups were not fans of the device out of the box, having warned parents not to buy it not long after it was introduced last spring. 

They argued then, as now, that it poses "significant threats to a child's wellbeing and privacy." 

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who co-founded the Congressional Privacy Caucus, also pressed Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at the time for some answers on how the device worked and what steps the company has taken to comply with Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act privacy protections (a bill Markey motormanned). 

Related: Privacy Groups Push FTC Action on Kid-Connected Devices 

Edge providers are increasingly under the microscope in Washington as their market cap and power have exploded and concerns about how they are using it when it comes to privacy and security and targeted marketing have come to the fore. 

Just this week, FTC Chairman Joseph Simons said that the FTC's high tech task force could go after digital platforms for how they did, or did not, protect online privacy. 

John Eggerton

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.