What We Didn’t Hear at Yesterday’s FTC COPPA Workshop

by on June 2, 2010 · 1 comment

Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) hosted an all-day workshop on “Protecting Kids’ Privacy Online,” which looked into the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) and challenges posed to its enforcement by new technological developments. The FTC staff did a nice job bringing together and moderating 5 panels worth of participants, all of whom had plenty of interesting things to say about the future of COPPA.  But I was more struck by what was not said yesterday. Namely, there was:

  • ZERO explanation of the supposed harms of advertising, marketing, and data collection. Advertising-bashing is an old sport here in Washington, so I guess I should not have been surprised to hear several panelists yesterday engaging in teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing about advertising, marketing, and the data collection methods that make it possible. But this grousing just went on and on without any explanation by the critics of the supposed harms that would result from it.
  • ZERO appreciation of the benefits of advertising, marketing, and data collection. Not once yesterday — NOT ONCE — did anyone pause to ask what it is that makes all these wonderful online sites, services and content free (or dirt cheap) to consumers.  Everyone at this show was guilty of the “manna fallacy” (that all this stuff just falls magically to Earth from the Net Gods above). Well, back here in the real world, something has to pay for all those goodies, and that something is advertising and marketing, which are facilitated by data collection! Or would you like to pay $19.95 a month for each of those currently free sites and services? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

  • Almost ZERO discussion of the excellent steps that so many websites are taking today above and beyond COPPA to make sure online communities are safe. What I found most amazing about the day’s discussion was the way many people seem to assume that COPPA is the most important approach to keeping kids safe online. In reality, as I have pointed out in my past work, COPPA is one the least important things that keeps kids safe online. It’s what sites do after kids get into their communities that is really important. And, until the last panel of the day, we heard very little about the important steps that countless online sites and communities take to make sure they offer more safe and secure environments for kids. In particular, beyond basic parental controls, moderation and intervention efforts by site operators are increasing within social networking sites, virtual worlds, and many other sites to ensure that they offer such “well lit” neighborhoods. Failure to integrate this into the discussion was the major failing of the day.
  • Little discussion of the role of parents should play in mentoring their kids online. So, I’m a parent.  Two kids. Ages 8 and 5. Guess what? They love commercial messages! I let them see them. Online and off. We talk about them. I explain to them not to believe everything they see. I explain that sometimes people are just out to sell them silly stuff they don’t need or, worse yet, scam them out of their money. I explain that there’s a lot of crap out there. And I explain to them that they should always consult with mom and dad about purchasing decisions to get our advice and consent. Hey… there’s a word for this: mentoring (otherwise known as “good parenting.”) Yes, yes, I know COPPA is suppose to aid parents in this regard, but honestly, I only think of COPPA as a small speed bump.  It can slow people — either kids or marketers — down a bit, but it will never stop companies from wanting to sell products or people (including kids) from wanting to buy them.  This is life in a capitalistic society, folks. Unless you want to live in some Marxist “Worker’s Paradise” where we ban all commercial messages and tightly limit consumption and consumer choice (and “wasteful capitalist” competition!), you better get used to it. And, to go back to point #1, you have yet to show me how exposure to commercial messages “harms” kids.  I’m not saying I want to subject my kids to an endless bombardment-by-ads, but as with everything else in this world, there is a sensible way to educate them using a combination of good mentoring and media literacy.
  • ZERO acknowledgment that COPPA expansion puts the law on a collision course with COPA, which has already been litigated and found unconstitutional. During the fourth panel yesterday on “Emerging Parental Verification Access and Methods,” there was some troubling talk of turning schools or mobile phone operators into online credentialing authorities. I’ve discussed the dangers of these approaches to online age verification here before (especially the insanely misguided suggestion that schools should become DMVs for our kids and be passing out digital credentials). Which brings up a broader concern not really discussed at all yesterday: At what point would an expansion of COPPA’s “verifiable parental consent” requirements converge with the unconstitutional mandatory age verification model found in the Children’s Online Protection Act (COPA)? We fought an epic, decade-long legal battle over COPA only to have the entire framework tossed out as a violation of the First Amendment. This issue was at the heart of the COPPA 2.0 paper Berin Szoka and I released last year, and a theme Berin recently explained in his Senate testimony and subsequent answers to questions for the Congressional Record.

Anyway, I could go on but I’ll just stop there and reference a few other things that we’ve been doing on COPPA and age verification issues more generally. But everyone should stay tuned to this debate because the prospect for COPPA expansion is quite real and it will have profound ramifications, as the subtitle to our first paper down below explains:

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