New Study on the Unintended Consequences of COPPA

by on November 1, 2011 · 2 comments

I highly recommend this important new study on “Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook about Age: Unintended Consequences of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act” by danah boyd of New York University, Eszter Hargittai from Northwestern University, Jason Schultz from University of California, Berkeley, and John Palfrey from Harvard University. COPPA is a complicated and somewhat open-ended law and regulatory regime. COPPA requires that commercial operators of websites and services obtain “verifiable parental consent” before collecting, disclosing, or using “personal information” (name, contact inform­ation) of children under the age of 13 if either their website or service (or “portion thereof”) is “directed at children” or they have actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information from a child.

The new study, which surveyed over 1,000 parents of children between the ages of 10 and 14, reveals that, despite the best of intentions, COPPA is having many unintended costs and consequences:

Although many sites restrict access to children, our data show that many parents knowingly allow their children to lie about their age — in fact, often help them to do so — in order to gain access to age–restricted sites in violation of those sites’ ToS. This is especially true for general–audience social media sites and communication services such as Facebook, Gmail, and Skype, which allow children to connect with peers, classmates, and family members for educational, social, or familial reasons.

The authors conclude that “COPPA inadvertently undermines parents’ ability to make choices and protect their children’s data” and that their results “have significant implications for policy–makers, particularly in light of ongoing discussions surrounding COPPA and other age–based privacy laws.” Indeed, this paper could really shake up the debate over online kids’ privacy regulation. I will have more analysis of the paper in my weekly Forbes column this weekend.

Additional reading for COPPA background and current controversies: Berin Szoka & Adam Thierer, “COPPA 2.0: The New Battle over Privacy, Age Verification, Online Safety & Free Speech,” (May 21, 2009); and Adam Thierer, “Kids, Privacy, Free Speech & the Internet: Finding the Right Balance,” (August 12, 2011).

  • Anonymous

    The reason Facebook doesn’t permit users under 13 to join is that it
    would require a parent to opt-in to the data collection–and also be
    fully informed about social media marketing.  That’s something Facebook
    doesn’t want to do.   Facebook could create a system where children
    could join under the fair rules established by COPPA.  It’s Facebook’s
    fault if parents and children need to lie about their age because it
    doesn’t want to embrace privacy safeguards appropriate for youth. 
    Rather than examine how data is collected by Facebook and the privacy
    issues raised for young people, this Microsoft funded survey (Microsoft
    has a conflict of interest since its owns a small piece of Facebook), asked questions without
    providing context and information.   Few parents–let alone children and
    teens–understand or can control the data collection and online
    targeting applications deployed by Facebook’s social media surveillance


    The report doesn’t address the COPPA issue in a serious way.  Most of the authors have received some sort of funding from digital marketers that have a financial stake in the outcome of the policy issue.  Luckily, we have a new book
    coming this month from Prof. Joe Turow on the dangers from contemporary
    digital marketing that should be required reading, esp. for these

  • Pingback: Unintended consequences–federal laws to protect children online probably endanger them instead | ProfTech - Wayne State University Blogs()

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