On April 29, I testified before the Senate Commerce Committee’s Consumer Protection Subcommittee on Examining Children’s Privacy: New Technologies and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Today, I filed 23 pages of responses to questions for the Congressional Record from Subcommittee Chairman Mark Pryor (D-AR), touching on many of the concerns and issues Adam Thierer and I developed in our May 2009 paper, COPPA 2.0: The New Battle over Privacy, Age Verification, Online Safety & Free Speech.
At the April hearing, Senators asked whether COPPA could be improved. Today, as in my April oral and written testimony, I again urged lawmakers to “tread carefully” because COPPA, as implemented, basically works. I explained why COPPA’s technological neutrality and flexibility should allow the FTC to keep pace with technological convergence and change without the need for legislative changes. But expanding the statute beyond its limited purposes, especially to cover adolescents under 18, could raise serious constitutional questions about the First Amendment rights of adults as well as older teens and site and service operators, and also have unintended consequences for the health of online content and services without necessarily significantly increasing the online privacy and safety of children.
The Committee’s follow-up questions also inquired about COPPA’s implementation, the subject of today’s FTC Roundtable. I noted that COPPA implementation has gone reasonably well, meeting its primary goal of enhancing parental involvement in children’s online activities, but that implementation has come at a price, since the costs of obtaining verifiable parental consent and otherwise complying with COPPA have, on the one hand, discouraged site and service operators from allowing children on their sites or offering child-oriented content, and, on the other hand, raised costs for child-oriented sites. The FTC could do more to lower compliance costs for website operators, thus allowing achievement of COPPA’s goals at a lower cost for parents and kids in foregone content and services.
Finally, I raised concerns about the FTC’s seeming invitation for changes to the COPPA statute itself. As a general matter, regulatory agencies should not be in the business of re-assessing the adequacy of their own powers, since the natural impulse of all bureaucracy is to grow. Though the agency has done a yeoman’s job of implementing COPPA, ultimately it is the responsibility of Congress, not the FTC, to make decisions about modifying the statute.