No need to fret over Thanksgiving! The Federal Trade Commission has extended until December 23, 2011, the deadline for the public to submit comments on proposed amendments to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule. That’s good news because the revisions are significant and include the demise of the flexible "sliding scale" approach that permitted operators to install an "email plus" method of obtaining verifiable parental consent when the collection and use was of a very limited nature. Without any data or evidence of consumer harm, the FTC has determined that the "shelf life of ’email plus’ has expired," to use the phrase of Commissioner Julie Brill at a recent Promotion Marketing Association conference. Apparently, making it harder for industry to market to children will force it to "innovate" new ways to comply. Sounds expensive. But, unless industry can come up with some hard evidence of those costs, the process of engaging children in interactive media will be significantly altered. There are other major changes. (The proposed changes will mean the end of user-generated contests for kids if they involve any uploaded photographs of themselves, for example.) Several industry groups, including the PMA, are planning to file comments. This extension will give industry more time to come up with hard numbers. Our sources at the staff level indicate that although there is a definite desire to kill email plus, carving out exceptions might be possible (at least in the Frequently Asked Questions that the FTC has published to help operators comply with the COPPA Rule) if commenters can produce solid reasons why this removal of the flexible approach is going to impose unreasonable costs, compared with the potential protection from admittedly hypothetical harm.
Unlike some of the recent FTC initiatives, which are arguably overreaches, these revisions, albeit aggressive, are probably within the broad Congressional authority granted to the Commission under COPPA. That makes it even more important that commenters come up with numbers about the costs of these revisions and how they might be likely to affect jobs. Even with regard to the Commission’s apparent usurpation of oversight from self-regulatory bodies in the area of children’s privacy, those bodies are subject to regulation by the FTC by virtue of the safe-harbor provisions. Thus, even though it will be imposing new costs and requirements on the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), which was monitoring the collection and use of information from children before there even was COPPA, CARU, because it sought safe harbor status, is subject to whatever new requirements the Commission may impose. One has to wonder, however, whether the existing safe harbor entities are sanguine about the new burdens because the FTC will be effectively making the barrier to entry for new safe harbor competitors nearly impossible. Interesting anti-competitive question.