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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

9th Circuit reverses decision in COPPA suit

Courts Appellate Ninth Circuit COPPA Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security FTC State Issues


In December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded a district court’s decision to dismiss a suit alleging that a multinational technology company used persistent identifiers to collect children’s data and track their online behavior surreptitiously and without their consent in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). According to the opinion, the company used targeted advertising “aided by sophisticated technology that delivers curated, customized advertising based on information about specific users.” The opinion further explained that “the company’s technology ‘depends partly on what [FTC] regulations call ‘persistent identifiers,’ which is information ‘that can be used to recognize a user over time and across different Web sites or online services.’” The opinion also noted that in 2013, the FTC adopted regulations under COPPA that barred the collection of children’s “persistent identifiers” without parental consent. The plaintiff class claimed that the company used persistent identifiers to collect data and track their online behavior surreptitiously and without their consent, and alleged state law claims arising under the constitutional, statutory, and common law of California, Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Tennessee, in addition to COPPA violations. The district court ruled that the “core allegations” in the third amended complaint were squarely covered, and preempted, by COPPA.

On appeal, the 9th Circuit considered whether COPPA preempts state law claims based on underlying conduct that also violates COPPA’s regulations. To determine this, the appellate court examined the language of COPPA’s preemption clause, which states that state and local governments cannot impose liability for interstate commercial activities that is “inconsistent with the treatment of those activities or actions” under COPPA. The opinion noted that the 9th Circuit has long held “that a state law damages remedy for conduct already proscribed by federal regulations is not preempted,” and that the statutory term “inconsistent” in the preemption context refers to contradictory state law requirements, or to requirements that stand as obstacles to federal objectives. The appellate court stated that it was not “persuaded that the insertion of ‘treatment’ in the preemption clause here evinces clear congressional intent to create an exclusive remedial scheme for enforcement of COPPA requirements.” The opinion noted that because “the bar on ‘inconsistent’ state laws implicitly preserves ‘consistent’ state substantive laws, it would be nonsensical to assume Congress intended to simultaneously preclude all state remedies for violations of those laws.” As such, the appellate court held that “COPPA’s preemption clause does not bar state-law causes of action that are parallel to, or proscribe the same conduct forbidden by, COPPA. Express preemption therefore does not apply to the children’s claims.”