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Summary:

Path, which got into privacy related hot water in early 2012, found about 3,000 minors (below 13) on its network, purged them and now has reached a settlement with Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to become COPPA compliant.

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Path CEO Dave Morin. Photo by Om Malik

Path, the San Francisco-based startup that offers private social networking services, has reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (pending judicial approval) on alleged violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protections Act (COPPA). As part of the settlement, the company will pay a fine of $800,000 and has purged about 3,000 accounts from the network. The settlement requires Path to establish a comprehensive privacy program and to obtain independent privacy assessments every other year for the next 20 years, the FTC said in a statement.

The discovery of the underage members came as a byproduct of the FTC investigation into the privacy fiasco over the uploading of iPhone address books to Path’s servers without the permission of the individuals. That privacy breach became a major headache for the company, including stoking  the ire of a very irate Apple. The company later changed its policies.

In a statement, the FTC said:

“Over the years the FTC has been vigilant in responding to a long list of threats to consumer privacy, whether it’s mortgage applications thrown into open trash dumpsters, kids information culled by music fan websites, or unencrypted credit card information left vulnerable to hackers,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.  “This settlement with Path shows that no matter what new technologies emerge, the agency will continue to safeguard the privacy of Americans.”

In addition to the $800,000 civil penalty, Path is prohibited from making any misrepresentations about the extent to which it maintains the privacy and confidentiality of consumers’ personal information.  The proposed settlement also requires Path to delete information collected from children under age 13 and bars future violations of COPPA.  Path has already deleted the address book information that it collected during the time period its deceptive practices were in place.

Dave Morin, Path’s founder and chief executive officer, said that the company had identified the accounts in February 2012 and by May 2012 had implemented changes to its sign-up process that automatically caught the underage sign-ups. Path discovered the issue on its own and addressed it (that is, they removed and blocked minors under the age of 13 from the service) before the FTC approached the company, Morin said. Path is currently compliant with COPPA rules. Morin said that the typical Path user is about 25 years old. The company, which has about 6 million registered users, is targeting families for using Path to share personal moments, so this particular settlement offers up a new and unique set of challenges to the company.

Morin said that the big reason the underage children were able to get into the network is because the company didn’t have requisite checks and balances in the system. In a blog post that the company shared with us, Morin explained:

Today the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that it reached a settlement pending court approval with Path regarding alleged violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protections Act (COPPA). The gist of the FTC’s complaint is this: early in Path’s history, children under the age of 13 were able to sign up for accounts. A very small number of affected accounts have since been closed by Path.

As you may know, we ask users’ their birthdays during the process of creating an account. However, there was a period of time where our system was not automatically rejecting people who indicated that they were under 13. Before the FTC reached out to us, we discovered and fixed this sign-up process qualification, and took further action by suspending any under age accounts that had mistakenly been allowed to be created.

We want to share our experience and learnings in the hope that others in our industry are reminded of the importance of making sure services are in full compliance with rules like COPPA. From a developer’s perspective, we understand the tendency to focus all attention on the process of building amazing new things. It wasn’t until we gave our account verification system a second look that we realized there was a problem. We hope our experience can help others as a reminder to be cautious and diligent.

Throughout this experience and now, we stand by our number one commitment to serve our users first.

Path has raised a total of $41.2 million from investors such as Index Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Redpoint Ventures. It was rumored that Google offered a couple hundred million dollars for the company.

Updated at 2.22 Pm: Jeffrey Paul, a researcher discovered another privacy bug in Path’s software. The company says it has fixed the problem and the update has been sent to Apple.

Path’s iOS app (yes, that same Path that was caught stealing users’ entire address books last February) will use the embedded EXIF tag location information from photos in the iOS Camera Roll to geotag your posts, even when you’ve explicitly disabledLocation Services for the Path application. (The app knows, of course, that it’s not getting location data via normal means from Location Services, yet behaves this wayeven in that case.)

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  1. Quite a few games, tools and other online children’s sites require adult permission/confirmation via email. It would make sense that Path would implement that type of solution so families with children who use digital tools can share among the private group. It could also offer the approval of friend requests by parents for those under 13.

    When 2 years old use smartphones and tablets there needs to be a way to make this happen.

    Google’s Apps for Schools allows admins to manage underage students, parents could do the same.

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