Last weekend at South by Southwest (“SXSW”) Interactive, a panel promoted the notion that it is in fact possible to harmonize innovation with kids’ privacy in the app space, but that doing so involves “a lot of work.”  In particular, the panel suggested that it takes a conscious desire on the part of app developers to create brands and interfaces that build in transparency, with the specific purpose of inspiring parent trust.  The panel featured Lorraine Akemann, Co-Founder of Moms with Apps; Elana Zeide, Privacy Research Fellow at New York University’s Information Law Institute; and moderator Sara Kloek, Director of Outreach at the Association for Competitive Technology.  It was one of the few privacy events at SXSW Interactive focused on children.

Ms. Zeide  walked through the regulatory and legal framework governing children’s apps, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”), which was updated last summer to, among other things, expand the scope of personal information subject to COPPA and make websites and apps strictly liable for third parties’ collection of personal information on their site.  Developers of online content directed towards children have felt restricted by federal laws that regulate data collection, use, and disclosure from children under 13, but  Ms. Akemann reminded developers that kids’ apps also cannot succeed or evolve without parent buy‑in.  Ms. Akemann stressed that it is critical for developers to strive towards evoking the same confidence that parents today associate with traditional content models, such as children’s literature or public television.  Unlike Charlotte’s Web or Sesame Street, for example, apps are not a one-directional mature content segment, and they require greater effort to develop “a feeling of trust” among parents. 

As a parent representative on the panel, Ms. Akemann suggested that her own definition of privacy for kids’ apps is just that — a feeling of trust.  Specifically, Ms. Akemann deems her privacy to have been infringed when she feels surprised or tricked by discovering something that was not communicated to her upfront.  As to her kids, Ms. Akemann defines privacy as her child’s ability to use technology without disruption from or confusion by outside services.  Therefore, when evaluating an app’s privacy framework, she asks herself these two basic questions:  “Am I surprised?  Is my kid’s experience interrupted?”  In addition to these inquiries, Ms. Akemann thinks that especially critical for parents are (1) a trusted brand to make purchasing decisions, and (2) an uncomplicated user interface that saves time and eliminates confusion. 

The panel concluded that even with growing regulation, it’s not ultimately necessary to choose between innovation and privacy for kids’ apps, so long as developers prioritize creating trust and transparency by implementing improvements like clear, concise, and easy to read privacy policies and easily identifiable iconic disclosures.  The hope is that these types of innovations will catch on with large-scale audiences to become standard practice for kids’ app developers.