COPPA 2.0: The New Battle over Privacy, Age Verification, Online Safety & Free Speech

by on May 24, 2009 · 33 comments

Adam Thierer & I have just released a detailed examination (PDF) of brewing efforts to expand the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 to cover adolescents and potentially all social networking sites—an approach we call “COPPA 2.0.”

As Adam explained on Larry Magid’s CNET podcast, COPPA mandates certain online privacy protections for children under 13, most importantly that websites obtain the “verifiable consent” of a child’s parent before collecting personal information about that child or giving that child access to interactive functionality that might allow the child to share their personal information with others. The law was intended primarily to “enhance parental involvement in a child’s online activities” as a means of protecting the online privacy and safety of children.

Yet advocates of expanding COPPA—or “COPPA 2.0″—see COPPA’s verifiable parental consent framework as a means for imposing broad regulatory mandates in the name of online child safety and concerns about social networking, cyber-harassment, etc. Two COPPA 2.0 bills are currently pending in New Jersey and Illinois. The accelerated review of COPPA to be conducted by the FTC next year (five years ahead of schedule) is likely to bring to Washington serious talk of expanding COPPA—even though Congress clearly rejected covering adolescents age 13-16 when COPPA was first proposed back in 1998.

We’ll discuss some of the key points of our paper in a series of blog posts, but here are the top nine reasons for rejecting COPPA 2.0, in that such an approach would:

  • Burden the free speech rights of adults by imposing age verification mandates on many sites used by adults, thus restricting anonymous speech and essentially converging—in terms of practical consequences—with the unconstitutional Children’s Online Protection Act (COPA), another 1998 law sometimes confused with COPPA;
  • Burden the free speech rights of adolescents to speak freely on—or gather information from—legal and socially beneficial websites;
  • Hamper routine and socially beneficial communication between adolescents and adults;
  • Reduce, rather than enhance, the privacy of adolescents, parents and other adults because of the massive volume of personal information that would have to be collected about users for authentication purposes (likely including credit card data);

  • Would likely be the subject of massive fraud or evasion since it is not always possible to definitively verify the parent-child relationship, or because the system could be “gamed” in other ways by determined adolescents;
  • Do nothing to prevent offshore sites and services from operating outside these rules;
  • Present major practical challenges for law enforcement officials in the face of such evasion by both domestic users and offshore sites;
  • Could destroy opportunities for new or smaller website operators to break into the market and offer competing services and innovations, thus contributing to consolidation of online content and services by erecting barriers to entry; and
  • Violate the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, since Internet activity clearly represents interstate commerce that states have no authority to regulate.

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