SXSW Panel on Innovation and Kids’ Privacy (Can They Coexist?)

South by Southwest is a large annual gathering for the music, film and technology crowd which takes place every spring in Austin, Texas. This March, Sara Kloek of the Association for Competitive Technology organized a panel about innovation and children’s online privacy. With COPPA in effect since last summer, it will be interesting to discuss how innovation is evolving amid regulation.

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In preparation for this panel, I’d like to publish a few notes about privacy, so we can move on to think about the question: “can innovation and privacy co-exist?”

Note #1: How do I define PRIVACY?

For adults, I view “online privacy” as my right to understand how my actions on connected devices are transmitted across networks. If I click or tap something, is that action anonymous, or is it tracked, and to what level can that action identify me?

For children, I define “online privacy” as a small child’s ability to use technology without disruption from outside services directed to adults. By services, I mean things like being able to make a purchase, view a general audience advertisement, or access the internet.

Note #2: What do app makers need to know to deal with privacy laws successfully?

App makers need to know about COPPA, and a great way to get educated is to read the FAQs published by the FTC. Upon reading, app makers should note three primary points:

  1. The definition of “Collect Personal Information” includes a persistent identifier, so even using analytics in an app for kids can trigger COPPA if not done so in a compliant fashion.
  2. The definition of “Operator” includes any 3rd party services in the app, meaning the app maker is responsible for ALL services integrated into the app being COPPA compliant.
  3. Getting Verifiable Parental Consent, within an app for kids, isn’t easy. Do parents have the time and inclination to provide their email, fax, credit card, or ss# to an app? You tell me, but I know my own personal answer is no. This means app makers will benefit from understanding the Exceptions to parental consent, covered in section I of the FAQ.

Note #3: What do parents need so they don’t find themselves (and their kids) in a jam?

  1. The truth, even if the truth isn’t perfect
  2. A trusted brand so they can make purchasing decisions
  3. A uncomplicated user interface to save time and eliminate technology confusion

Do parents have these things yet in the world of kids and technology? Some, but not all. For #1, we are working on the KNOW What’s Inside program for app developers, with 180+ companies who build transparency into app descriptions. For #2, some trusted brands in the app space are emerging, with great companies both succeeding AND doing the right thing. But are these brands as well known to parents as PBS? To be determined. Number 3 is “in process”. Many start-ups have innovative ideas about family tech, but only time will tell if these ideas gain traction with a large scale audience.

Note #4: Where have we seen innovations?

Clear, concise, and easy to read privacy policies (this example provided by Cowly Owl):

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Iconic disclosures (originally launched on Moms With Apps, created by Operatio Apps)

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Audience segmentation (i.e., “gates”) in mobile apps (this example provide by Avokiddo):


Family-friendly social sharing (this example provide by Sprite Kids):


Highlighting trust and transparency (this example provided by Very Nice Studio):


Note #5: Is it possible for innovation and privacy to co-exist?

In my opinion, yes – but it takes a lot of work. Designing a product for kids under thirteen requires time to do the homework on applicable legislation. In addition, it requires a thoughtful and appropriate product implementation, with enough patience to let the brand grow the good old fashioned way.  In other words, success in the kids’ app marketplace may look more like the turtle than the hare.

In the meantime, we do what we can to advocate for app makers who are making family-friendly choices.


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