As the number of apps available from foreign-based companies to consumers in the United States continues to grow, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued a pointed warning to application developers whose product offerings target children in the United States. In a letter sent last month to BabyBus, a China-based mobile app developer, the FTC warned the company that its apps were not in compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Although not the first time that the FTC has advised foreign companies of their COPPA obligations, this is first time since the FTC revised its COPPA rules in mid-2013 that the agency has publicly warned a foreign-based company of noncompliance.
Stating that BabyBus advertises in various app stores as “a leader in early childhood education software,” with approximately 60 apps using cartoon characters that teach children letters, numbers, shapes, and music, the FTC noted that the apps “appear to collect precise geolocation information that is transmitted to third parties” without the appropriate consent. Under COPPA, websites and online services involved in commerce in the United States and directed at children under 13 must provide notice of such practices and obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting, using, or disclosing any personal information—including GPS-based locations—from children. As the FTC reminded BabyBus, foreign-based companies that make commercial apps available to consumers in the United States are subject to these COPPA requirements.
In the letter, the FTC did not threaten any legal action against BabyBus but urged the company to review its app offerings “with respect to the online collection of personal information.” It also warned the company that FTC staff members will continue to review the company’s privacy practices. In response, BabyBus apologized to its users and said that it updated its apps to ensure compliance with COPPA.
It is not clear what, if any, enforcement action the FTC could try to take against foreign app developers that market their software to U.S.-based customers. The FTC could face obstacles asserting its regulatory authority against companies outside the United States because it may be tough for the FTC to establish that U.S. courts have personal jurisdiction over overseas-based app makers. Still, the FTC’s letter drew the attention of app stores that made the BabyBus apps available—at least one store temporarily pulled the apps, which have since been restored.