In 2014, with childhood obesity on the rise in the United States, tech company Kurbo, Ltd. (Kurbo) marketed a free app for kids that, according to the company, was “designed to help kids and teens ages 8-17 reach a healthier weight.” When WW International (WW) (formerly Weight Watchers) acquired Kurbo in 2018, the app was rebranded “Kurbo by WW,” and WW continued to market the app to children as young as eight. But according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Kurbo’s privacy practices were not exactly child-friendly, even if its app was. The FTC’s complaint, filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) last month, claims that WW’s notice, data collection, and data retention practices violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act Rule (COPPA Rule). WW and Kurbo, under a stipulated order, agreed to pay a $1.5 million civil penalty in addition to complying with a range of injunctive provisions. These provisions include, but are not limited to, deleting all personal information of children whose parents did not provide verifiable parental consent in a specified timeframe, and deleting “Affected Work Product” (defined in the order to include any models or algorithms developed in whole or in part using children’s personal information collected through the Kurbo Program).
The COPPA Rule applies to any operator of a commercial website or online service directed to children that collects, uses, and/or discloses personal information from children and to any operator of a commercial website or online service that has actual knowledge that it collects, uses, and/or discloses personal information from children. Operators must notify parents and obtain their consent before collecting, using, or disclosing personal information from children under 13.
The complaint states that children enrolled in the Kurbo app by signing up through the app or having a parent do it on their behalf. Once on Kurbo, users could enter personal information such as height, weight, and age, and the app then tracked their weight, food consumption, and exercise. However, the FTC alleges that Kurbo’s age gate was porous, requiring no verification process to establish that children who affirmed they were over 13 were the age they claimed to be or that users asserting they were parents were indeed parents. In fact, the complaint alleges that the registration area featured a “tip-off” screen that gave visitors just two choices for registration: the “I’m a parent” option or the “I’m at least 13” option. Visitors saw the legend, “Per U.S. law, a child under 13 must sign up through a parent” on the registration page featuring these choices. In fact, thousands of users who indicated that they were at least 13 were younger and were able to change their information and falsify their real age. Users who lied about their age or who falsely claimed to be parents were able to continue to use the app. In 2020, after a warning from the FTC, Kurbo implemented a registration screen that removed the legend and the “at least 13” option. However, the new process failed to provide verification measures to establish that users claiming to be parents were indeed parents.
Kurbo’s notice of data collection and data retention practices also fell short. The COPPA Rule requires an operator to “post a prominent and clearly labeled link to an online notice of its information practices with regard to children on the home or landing page or screen of its Web site or online service, and, at each area of the Web site or online service where personal information is collected from children.” But beginning in November 2019, Kurbo’s notice at registration was buried in a list of hyperlinks that parents were not required to click through, and the notice failed to list all the categories of information the app collected from children. Further, Kurbo did not comply with the COPPA Rule’s mandate to keep children’s personal information only as long as reasonably necessary for the purpose it was collected and then to delete it. Instead, the company held on to personal information indefinitely unless parents specifically requested its removal.
In addition to imposing a $1.5 million civil penalty, the order, which was approved by the court on March 3, 2022, requires WW and Kurbo to:
- Refrain from disclosing, using, or benefitting from children’s personal information collected in violation of the COPPA Rule;
- Delete all personal information Kurbo collected in violation of the COPPA Rule within 30 days;
- Provide a written statement to the FTC that details Kurbo’s process for providing notice and seeking verifiable parental consent;
- Destroy all affected work product derived from improperly collecting children’s personal information and confirm to the FTC that deletion has been carried out;
- Delete all children’s personal information collected within one year of the user’s last activity on the app; and
- Create and follow a retention schedule that states the purpose for which children’s personal information is collected, the specific business need for retaining such information, and criteria for deletion, including a set timeframe no longer than one year.
Implications of the Order
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in AMG Capital Management, LLC v. Federal Trade Commission, which halted the FTC’s ability to use its Section 13(b) authority to seek monetary penalties for violations of the FTC Act, the FTC has been pushing Congress to grant it greater enforcement powers. In the meantime, the FTC has used other enforcement tools, including the recent resurrection of the agency’s long-dormant Penalty Offense Authority under Section 5(m)(1)(B) of the FTC Act and a renewed willingness to use algorithmic disgorgement (which the FTC first applied in the 2019 Cambridge Analytica case).
Algorithmic disgorgement involves “requir[ing] violators to disgorge not only the ill-gotten data, but also the benefits—here, the algorithms—generated from that data,” as then-Acting FTC Chair Rebecca Kelly Slaughter stated in a speech last year. This order appears to be the first time algorithmic disgorgement was applied by the Commission in an enforcement action under COPPA.
Children’s privacy issues continue to attract the attention of the FTC and lawmakers at both federal and state levels. Companies that collect children’s personal information should be careful to ensure that their privacy policies and practices fully conform to the COPPA Rule.