By John Patrick Pullen
October 24, 2017

Kids say the darnedest things—especially to Amazon Echos. But until a statement was issued Tuesday by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), what children say to Alexa and other voice assistants was a topic the tech industry was better off not discussing. That’s because under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection (COPPA) Rule, it had been illegal for tech companies to collect the voice recordings of children under the age of 13, without a parent’s consent. And though technically the rule hasn’t changed, the government’s position on it has. “When a covered operator collects an audio file containing a child’s voice…” said the FTC statement, “… the FTC would not take an enforcement action….”

Though there are a lot of caveats in the above ellipses, the overall point the FTC has made is that the government recognizes that the new wave of smart speakers and similar technologies use voice as a replacement for typing. And as long as a tech company only uses the audio file to transcribe a commands—”and then immediately deletes it”— there’s no reason for the agency to enforce the rule, which was first put into effect in 1999. The FTC hasn’t issued an exemption, necessarily, but rather a “non-enforcement policy.”

However, the FTC notes, some voice-supplied user data is still enforceable under COPPA. For instance, if an app or skill asks for a child’s name, for instance, that would fall into the category of “personal data,” which require parental consent.

This is already an issue that Amazon has addressed with some of Amazon Alexa’s kid-oriented skills. In September, Sesame Street, Nickelodeon and Amazon released skills aimed at younger users. The move came a month after Disney had been sued for apps had that allegedly compromised children’s privacy under COPPA. Disney countered by saying it “has a robust COPPA compliance program, and we maintain strict data collection and use policies for Disney apps created for children and families.”

To avoid a similar fate, Amazon’s new kid skills required parental permission in order to active the programs on Alexa-compatible devices. And though now it appears that the FTC will back down from enforcing recordings made by Echos and other smart speakers, asking for parental permission first will continue to be a smart better-safe-than-sorry policy for the tech companies.

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