Expanding COPPA Won’t Protect Children

Published August 1, 2009

A new study shows the proposed expansion of the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, as well as similar bills working their way through state legislatures, are “highly misguided.”

The study, produced by the Progress & Freedom Foundation and released in May, says such measures violate free speech rights and are largely unworkable at a time when social networking sites are gaining in popularity, especially among teens.

COPPA, passed by Congress in 1998, requires operators of child-oriented Web sites or service providers to “obtain verifiable parental consent prior to any collection, use, and/or disclosure of personal information from children [under age 13].”

Advocates of age verification mandates argue online child safety would be improved if all Web sites—particularly social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo—were required to screen users by age and to limit or ban access by those over or under certain ages.

States Adding Mandates

In addition to proposals to amend COPPA, several states, including Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey, are debating bills to mandate age verification for social networking sites.

“It’s important we not overlook the privacy implications of any effort to expand COPPA to do something it was not originally intended to do,” wrote Berin Szoka and Adam Thierer, Progress & Freedom Foundation fellows, in the study. “There are better ways to protect our kids online.”

Multilayered Approach Suggested

Bartlett Cleland, director of the Center for Technology Freedom at the Lewisville, Texas-based Institute for Policy Innovation, agrees, saying attempts to police Internet use—even among minors, as with COPPA and similar state measures—will be largely ineffective.

“The problems encountered online, whether on a social networking site or elsewhere online, are exactly the same problems found in the schoolyard, in the homes of abusive parents, on the telephone, and at the shopping mall,” Cleland said. “The sad truth is that ‘at risk’ kids are at risk no matter where they spend time.”

“The research made clear that while technology may be part of the solution, the key to keeping kids safe online is a multilayered approach combining technology—much of which is already being deployed by social networking sites and provided for free by many Internet service providers—law enforcement, caregiver oversight, and private educational efforts on Internet safety,” Cleland said. “A technological mandate will not work.”

Troy Stouffer
([email protected]) writes from Baltimore.

For more information …

“COPPA 2.0: The New Battle over Privacy, Age Verification, Online Safety & Free Speech,” Berin Szoka and Adam Thierer, Progress & Freedom Foundation: http://www.pff.org/issues-pubs/pops/2009/pop16.11-COPPA-and-age-verification.pdf