The FTC staff released a report today calling for participants in the mobile app ecosystem — including app developers, app stores, and third parties who collect data through mobile apps — to provide better privacy notices to parents about mobile apps directed to children, and warning that over the next six months, staff will be conducting additional reviews “to determine whether there are COPPA violations and whether enforcement is appropriate.”

The report is based on the staff’s survey of apps offered in the Android Market and the Apple App store. Staff focused on “the types of apps offered to children; the age range of the intended audience; the disclosures provided to users about the apps’ data collection and sharing practices; the availability of interactive features, such as connecting with social media; and the app store ratings and parental controls offered for these systems.”

Notably, the report stated that the FTC expects the whole app ecosystem to “play an active role in providing key information to parents who download apps.” Specifically, the report outlined the following:  

  • App developers should provide parents information about (1) what information an app collects, (2) how the information will be used, and (3) with whom the information will be shared, using short disclosures or icons that are easy to find and understand on the small screen of a mobile device. App developers also should alert parents if the app connects with social media, or allows targeted advertising to occur through the app.
  • Third parties that collect information through apps should disclose their privacy practices, whether through a link on the app promotion page or another easily accessible method.
  • App stores should provide a more consistent way for developers to display information regarding their app’s data collection practices and interactive features. The FTC stated, for example, that app stores could provide a designated space for developers to disclose this information and standardized icons to signal specific features, such as connections with social media services. In addition, the FTC emphasized that app stores should be enforcing developer agreements that require developers to disclose the information their apps collect.

The report expressed a preference for disclosures that are provided prior to the parent’s purchase of the app, noting that “[i]nformation provided to parents after downloading an app is, in staff’s view, less useful in the parent’s decision-making since, by then, the child may already be using the app and the parent already could have been charged a fee.”

In addition, the report focused on disclosures involving in-app purchases, interactive features, and targeted advertising.  The report states that the FTC is considering whether additional protections are needed with respect to in-app purchase capabilities in apps for children.  It emphasized that “confusing and hard-to-find disclosures do not give parents the control that they need in this area.” Staff believe that the presence of social features within an app is highly relevant to parents selecting apps for their children, and that such functionality should be disclosed prior to download.  And the report states that “parents need clear, easy-to-read, and consistent disclosures regarding the advertising that their children may view on apps, especially when that advertising is personalized based on the child’s in-app activities.”

As we have blogged about here and here, the FTC currently is reviewing its rules implementing the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which governs the online collection, use, and disclosure of personal information from children under the age of 13.