Federal Lawmakers Urge FTC to Monitor Digital Marketing During COVID-19

Managing Editor
Sen Josh Hawley of Missouri

As remote learning becomes the norm for schools during COVID-19, members of Congress are urging the Federal Trade Commission to make sure that ed-tech companies’ digital marketing does not infringe on students’ online privacy.

A bipartisan group of senators, including Sens. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, has written to the agency and asked it to seek a wide range of information from ed-tech companies about their practices. 

That information should include details on companies’ data-collection activity, how they obtain consent for data collection from parents, how they employ machine learning and data analytics to target audiences, and—if they operate platforms for both adults and children—how they determine if their users are children.

The FTC is currently reviewing rules for the federal law that governs ed-tech companies’ practices, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The agency enforces COPPA.

In their letter, the lawmakers allude to the sweeping impact that the coronavirus is having on districts, which have raced to expand distance learning in ways that will linger well beyond the current public health crisis.

“Online platforms and software offerings have become integral to American education and essential to parents’ support of children’s development,” the senators said. “Many ed tech companies are offering innovative solutions to challenges facing our education system and are enhancing students’ learning experiences.”

Yet COVID-19 has brought a broad shift in online education, and “many of these changes will remain after the coronavirus pandemic is over, as leading technology companies continue to expand their reach into kids’ educational experiences,” the lawmakers said. “For the COPPA Rule to meet the needs of educators, parents, and children, it must account for this new normal.”

As schools introduce a wave of new online lessons, students are spending far more time on the internet for entertainment during the pandemic, the members of Congress added. Children’s overall screen time has increased, and this makes students and their families susceptible to a rush of digital marketing.

“Brands are eager to connect with consumers at young ages, and the global kids digital advertising market is poised to reach $1.7 billion by next year,” they say.

“This steep demand for children’s attention online comes with a steep demand for their personal information. In this way, the rise in digital marketing directed to children presents risks of privacy invasions.”

The lawmakers say the FTC should capitalize on its investigative powers to explore the practices of ed-tech companies that use online advertising that reach children. A particular focus should be “how those commercial entities are shifting their marketing strategies in response to the Coronavirus pandemic and increased screen time.”

Last year the FTC announced plans to review its rules for enforcing COPPA, to ensure that its rules are keeping up with changes in technology and other developments.

As part of that process, the FTC asked for public input—and it has received 170,000 comments so far.

Photo: Sen. Josh Hawley during a congressional hearing  in March of last year. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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