New regulations to protect children from intrusive Internet applications sound like a good idea. But the Federal Trade Commission is going too far in proposing to extend regulations that currently apply only to websites to applications. Current regulations require any website for kids that also gathers personal information, as many do, to obtain parental consent. Thus, under the new proposal, any kid-focused web application, including many iPad and smartphone apps that rely on a user’s location, would have to screen users to determine if they’re 13 or older.
It’s not clear how the FTC would decide which web apps are subject to the extra regulations. What about apps made for adults that kids may be interested in, such as those providing information about science, music, or sports? The FTC plainly lacks the resources to make these decisions about the hundreds of thousands of applications available. The agency hasn’t shown it can implement existing parental-consent requirements for websites; the FTC has pursued just 19 cases under the current rules, many of which have been resolved with fines that provide little deterrence against deep-pocketed violators.
The obvious solution would be for parents to keep a close eye on the applications used by their kids; while this would be more difficult for parents with furtive teenagers, older kids are also better positioned to make responsible decisions on their own.
An unwanted consequence of the proposed rule would be less innovation. Many apps need to gather innocuous user information in order to function. For instance, smartphone maps locate a user via GPS, and news apps recommend stories based on a user’s browsing history and location. Tweaking apps to comply with the new rules wouldn’t necessarily be difficult for many well-funded developers. But, as the FTC has acknowledged, the proposed rules could hurt smaller ones, who may lack the know-how or the resources to comply, and small developers often come up with the most innovative and cutting-edge products.