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Oath To Pay Almost $5 Million To Settle Charges By New York AG Regarding Children's Privacy Violations

Oath Inc. logo Barbara D. Underwood, the Attorney General (AG) for New York State, announced last week a settlement with Oath, Inc. for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Oath Inc. is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Verizon Communications. Until June 2017, Oath was known as AOL Inc. ("AOL"). The announcement stated:

"The Attorney General’s Office found that AOL conducted billions of auctions for ad space on hundreds of websites the company knew were directed to children under the age of 13. Through these auctions, AOL collected, used, and disclosed personal information from the websites’ users in violation of COPPA, enabling advertisers to track and serve targeted ads to young children. The company has agreed to adopt comprehensive reforms to protect children from improper tracking and pay a record $4.95 million in penalties..."

The United States Congress enacted COPPA in 1998 to protect the safety and privacy of young children online. As many parents know, young children don't understand complicated legal documents such as terms-of-use and privacy policies. COPPA prohibits operators of certain websites from collecting, using, or disclosing personal information (e.g., first and last name, e-mail address) of children under the age of 13 without first obtaining parental consent.

The definition of "personal information" was revised in 2013 to include persistent identifiers that can be used to recognize a user over time and across websites, such as the ID found in a web browser cookie or an Internet Protocol (“IP”) address. The revision effectively prohibits covered operators from using cookies, IP addresses, and other persistent identifiers to track users across websites for most advertising purposes on COPPA-covered websites.

The announcement by AG Underwood explained the alleged violations in detail. Despite policies to the contrary:

"... AOL nevertheless used its display ad exchange to conduct billions of auctions for ad space on websites that it knew to be directed to children under the age of 13 and subject to COPPA. AOL obtained this knowledge in two ways. First, several AOL clients provided notice to AOL that their websites were subject to COPPA. These clients identified more than a dozen COPPA-covered websites to AOL. AOL conducted at least 1.3 billion auctions of display ad space from these websites. Second, AOL itself determined that certain websites were directed to children under the age of 13 when it conducted a review of the content and privacy policies of client websites. Through these reviews, AOL identified hundreds of additional websites that were subject to COPPA. AOL conducted at least 750 million auctions of display ad space from these websites."

AG Underwood said in a statement:

"COPPA is meant to protect young children from being tracked and targeted by advertisers online. AOL flagrantly violated the law – and children’s privacy – and will now pay the largest-ever penalty under COPPA. My office remains committed to protecting children online and will continue to hold accountable those who violate the law."

A check at press time of both the press and "company values" sections of Oath's site failed to find any mentions of the settlement. TechCrunch reported on December 4th:

"We reached out to Oath with a number of questions about this privacy failure. But a spokesman did not engage with any of them directly — emailing a short statement instead, in which it writes: "We are pleased to see this matter resolved and remain wholly committed to protecting children’s privacy online." The spokesman also did not confirm nor dispute the contents of the New York Times report."

Hmmm. Almost a week has passed since AG Underwood's December 4th announcement. You'd think that Oath management would have released a statement by now. Maybe Oath isn't as committed to children's online privacy as they claim. Something for parents to note.

The National Law Review provided some context:

"...in 2016, the New York AG concluded a two-year investigation into the tracking practices of four online publishers for alleged COPPA violations... As recently as September of this year, the New Mexico AG filed a lawsuit for alleged COPPA violations against a children's game app company, Tiny Lab Productions, and the online ad companies that work within Tiny Lab's, including those run by Google and Twitter... The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) continues to vigorously enforce COPPA, closing out investigations of alleged COPPA violations against smart toy manufacturer VTech and online talent search company Explore Talent... there have been a total of 28 enforcement proceedings since the COPPA rule was issued in 2000."

You can read about many of these actions in this blog, and how COPPA was strengthened in 2013.

So, the COPPA law works well and it is being vigorously enforced. Kudos to AG Underwood, her staff, and other states' AGs for taking these actions. What are your opinions about the AOL/Oath settlement?

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