The Federal Trade Commission’s proposed revisions of the rules that implement the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is well meaning and well-timed. It’s well meaning in that the FTC truly does care about the privacy and safety of children and it’s well-timed in that it’s the first revision since COPPA was implemented back in 1999 during the days of Web 1.0. Back then there was no Facebook and no smart phone apps. There were websites, including some that were using information collected from children to send them marketing pitches, which is why Congress decided to clamp down with a law that requires verifiable parental consent before a site could collect personally identifiable information from children under 13.
I also mentioned some unintended negative consequences of the rule changes, which prompted my co-director Anne Collier and me to submit an official comment for the FTC to consider as it finalizes its rule changes.
Our comment also covers the chilling impact that the rules could have on small businesses that offer education and entertainment resources to children. We worry that the cost of compliance will discourage legitimate businesses from catering to children while having no impact on sleazy businesses that will continue to violate the privacy of children and other visitors. Of course kids will continue to seek content, but if well-meaning legitimate businesses fail to provide it, kids could be driven “underground” to sites — perhaps some operating from outside the United States — that are only more than happy to “serve” and potentially exploit them. As my ConnectSafely.org co-director Anne Collier stated it in her COPPA, “The more government tries to regulate, requiring protections that by definition restrict children’s free expression, the less likely it is that children will stick around to “enjoy” that safety. If they do go underground to sites, apps, games or other services that aren’t compliant – whether in the US or outside of it.”
Finally, we worry that an overly specific set of COPPA rules could quickly render the legislation obsolete in the face of ever changing technology. We do support a broad framework that requires sites to operate ethically but we also feel that there needs to be an on-the-ground constant conversation involving the stakeholders including the sites and apps, parents and the kids themselves. As we said in our comment: