The California court barred private lawsuits under COPPA

COPPA applies to any operator of a commercial website or online service directed to children under 13 years of age that collects, uses, and/or discloses personal information from children.

10 March 2021 | by LexisNexis Hong Kong

Introduction

In Hubbard v. Google LLC 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 239936, the California court ruled against the plaintiffs’ state law action concerning Google’s allegedly deceptive conduct in collecting and handling children’s personal information from the YouTube platform. Judge Freeman found that the relevant statute, Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”), clearly preempted the plaintiffs from bringing state law claims. The defendants’ motion to dismiss was granted with leave to amend.

Facts

A group of parents (“Plaintiffs”) brought an action on behalf of their children alleging that Google, and its subsidiary YouTube and other channel owners (“Defendants”) unlawfully violated the right to privacy and reasonable expectation of privacy of their children. The Plaintiffs exclusively brought state law claims that these companies knowingly and purposely tracked, profiled, and targeted their children (under 13 years of age) on YouTube platform for advertising revenue purpose through deceptive collection of personal information. Google did not disclose the full extent of the information it collected from the children. As such, the Plaintiffs alleged that these companies were feigning compliance with the COPPA.

COPPA applies to any operator of a commercial website or online service directed to children under 13 years of age that collects, uses, and/or discloses personal information from children. COPPA required these companies to disclose information collection practices and obtain verifiable parental consent for any collection, use or disclosure of children’s personal information. It is unlawful to violate the regulations prescribed in COPPA. The Plaintiffs claimed that the statutory text of COPPA only preempted state laws that were inconsistent with COPPA. Their claim invoking the state laws did not pose obstacles to enforcing COPPA nor did it make it impossible for the Defendants to comply both with COPPA and the state laws.

On the other hand, the Defendants argued that the claims of the Plaintiffs were expressly and impliedly preempted by COPPA’s preemption clause. Accordingly, it did not allow a private right of action in this statute. The Defendants moved to dismiss the action.

Judgment

The court ruled that the plain wordings of the federal statute clearly stated to preempt the Plaintiffs’ state law claims. Pursuant to COPPA 15 U.S.C. § 6502(d), “No State or local government may impose any liability for commercial activities or actions by operators in interstate or foreign commerce in connection with an activity or action described in this chapter that is inconsistent with the treatment of those activities or actions under this section.” The Congress was clear when it decided how violations of COPPA should be treated. The text of COPPA’s preemption clause forbid states from imposing liability for activities regulated under COPPA inconsistent with the treatment of those activities or actions under this section. By the text of the preemption clause, state law claims predicted on COPPA violations were preempted because of the treatment inconsistent with COPPA’s remedial scheme involving the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general. The COPPA’s enforcement scheme was clear to exclude state laws to impose additional liability.

Although the Plaintiffs’ claims were styled as arising under state law, the claims were predicated on violations of COPPA, not activity that independently violated state law. The court found that the Plaintiffs’ claims were based on violations of COPPA and COPPA’s preemption clause preempted the Plaintiffs’ claims.

The Plaintiffs’ complaint did not explain what was deceptive about Google’s collecting of data or grapple with whether Google’s data collection policies have been properly disclosed. Plaintiffs have not alleged any data collection or deception on the part of the Defendants. For the complaint to go forward against the Defendants, these deficiencies must be addressed. Hence, the court dismissed the action without prejudice and gave the Plaintiffs 30 days to amend their complaint showing that the Defendants’ conduct amounted to more than solely a violation of COPPA’s requirements.


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