FTC Testifies on Protecting Teen Privacy

For Release

The Federal Trade Commission today testified that while teens are heavy users of the digital environment and may benefit from using the Internet to socialize with peers, learn about issues that interest them, and express themselves, it also can pose unique challenges for them. The FTC testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance notes that the Commission will continue to use law enforcement, education, and policy tools to protect teens in the digital environment.

“Most teens today are avid consumers of digital media. Despite their technological sophistication, teens are still vulnerable to privacy and security risks,” said Jessica Rich, Deputy Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, who testified at the hearing. “The FTC is committed to making the Internet safer for everyone.”

The testimony states that teens tend to be more impulsive than adults and may not always think about the consequences of sharing information online. On social networking sites, for example, young people may share personal details that leave them vulnerable to identity theft. They may also share details that could adversely affect their potential employment or college admissions.

The FTC aggressively enforces the law to protect consumers’ privacy in areas important to teens, such as social networking. About three of four American teens now use social networking sites – nearly half on a daily basis. The FTC has brought a number of enforcement actions against such sites, including one announced two weeks ago against Twitter, Inc., settling charges that the Web site falsely represented to consumers that it would maintain reasonable security of its system and ensure that private messages remain private.

The Commission also is closely examining the mobile arena. According to the testimony, in 2004, 45 percent of teens aged 12 to 17 had a cell phone, but by 2009, the number had reached 75 percent. Teens are increasingly using their phones for texting, e-mail and Web browsing and making online purchases. They also are using mobile applications that raise unique privacy concerns, such as location-based tracking. The testimony notes that the FTC has expanded its Internet lab to make sure it has the tools necessary to respond to the growth of mobile commerce and conduct mobile-related investigations.

The FTC has launched a number of education initiatives to help young people navigate the Internet safely and responsibly. One recent publication, Net Cetera: Chatting With Kids About Being Online, provides practical tips that parents, teachers, and other trusted adults can use to help children, including teens and tweens, reduce the risks of inappropriate conduct, contact, and content that come with living life online.

In addition to outlining its law enforcement and consumer education activities, the testimony describes the Commission’s policy work to help all consumers, including teens, preserve their privacy in commercial settings. The FTC held a series of public roundtables examining ways to foster privacy protections without curtailing technological innovation and beneficial uses of information in areas including social networking. The Commission is reviewing the information it received and drafting initial proposals for public comment that will be released later this year.

The testimony notes that the FTC questions whether extending COPPA protections to teens would prove effective in protecting their privacy. COPPA requires Web site operators to provide notice to, and receive consent from, parents of children under 13 before collecting, using, or disclosing children’s personal information. Although the parental notice and consent model works fairly well for young children, the testimony noted that it may be less effective or appropriate for adolescents. For example, teens are more likely than younger children to alter their parents’ contact information or misrepresent their own ages in order to participate in online activities their parents might not deem appropriate.

The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 1,800 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s Web site provides free information on a variety of consumer topics.

(FTC File No. P09 5416)
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