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FTC cracks down on distance-learning platforms conducting “data surveillance” on children

In context: Although most K-12 schools have gone back to on-campus classes, the FTC is still concerned about distance-learning platforms gathering data and creating profiles on children. The Commission is particularly worried that online learning tools collect too much information without allowing parents to opt out.

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has announced a crackdown on online-learning platforms that may be excessively gathering student data. It says that this data collection is often mandatory, leaving parents with no recourse but to accept it.

“Students must be able to do their schoolwork without surveillance by companies looking to harvest their data to pad their bottom line,” said Samuel Levine, the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection director. “Parents should not have to choose between their children’s privacy and their participation in the digital classroom.”

Although no longer at its peak, the use of online learning tools skyrocketed in early 2020 due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Companies like Zoom and others positioned themselves as go-to aids in helping teachers and students connect from their homes. These platforms are built upon the “business surveillance model,” the FTC said, meaning they harvest information for advertising purposes.

The FTC says that collecting data from children under 13 years old without parental consent violates the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA). So commissioners vow to monitor this sector of the industry to ensure that companies are protecting students’ privacy.

The Commission issued a set of policies outlining four areas of misconduct against which it will take action. The rules prohibit mandatory data collection, using any collected information for commercial purposes, keeping data for longer than is necessary, and maintaining the “confidentiality, security, and integrity of children’s personal information.”

The FTC approved the regulations in a 5-0 vote last Thursday. Companies failing to adhere to the expanded COPPA policies could face civil penalties and mandated requirements or restrictions on their business practices to stop unlawful conduct.

Masthead credit: Marketingjpik

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