WASHINGTON D.C. - The Federal Trade Commission today published a Request for Public Comment on its implementation of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act or 1998 (COPPA), which governs online sharing by, and collection of information from, children under age 13. Comments on the review are due June 30, 2010. The following statement may be attributed to Berin Szoka, Senior Fellow at The Progress & Freedom Foundation:
COPPA has undoubtedly succeeded in its primary goal of enhancing parental involvement in their children's online activities in order to protect the privacy and safety of children online. Yet these benefits have come at a price, as COPPA's considerable compliance costs have likely reduced the digital media choices available for children. So I'm glad to see the Commission recognize these inevitable trade-offs by asking about the costs and benefits of COPPA and any proposed changes.
I look forward to seeing comments on the important questions raised by the Commission about precisely how best to implement the framework enacted by Congress. But I do worry that the Commission has explicitly invited proposals for legislative changes to the statute itself. Most troubling would be any proposal to extend COPPA to cover adolescents age 13-17—which Congress considered, but rejected, back in 1998 in recognition of the free speech rights at stake. At least five states have considered such "COPPA 2.0" laws in recent years. In practice, such laws would require age verification of all visitors to general audience websites, and would likely therefore be struck down by the courts on First Amendment grounds for much the same reasons the courts have struck down efforts to require age verification for access to pornography.
Finally, even if COPPA's age bracket is not expanded, I worry that broad revision of key terms like "collection" and "personal information" could have serious unintended consequences for online advertising and data use, which are the lifeblood of the online ecosystem. This possibility will grow significantly if the FTC succeeds in obtaining sweeping new enforcement powers in pending legislation related to financial reform.
Szoka is available for comment and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Along with PFF President Adam Thierer, he is the author of COPPA 2.0: The New Battle over Privacy, Age Verification, Online Safety & Free Speech, a PFF study of proposals to expand COPPA published in June 2009.
The Progress & Freedom Foundation is a market-oriented think tank that studies the digital revolution and its implications for public policy. PFF is a 501(c)(3) research & educational non-profit.