Szoka Cautions against Expansion of Children's Online Privacy Protection Act
WASHINGTON D.C. — The Internet would become less innovative, offer fewer choices, and be more expensive for consumers if the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) were expanded, said Berin Szoka, PFF Senior Fellow and Director of PFF's Center for Internet Freedom, in testimony today before the U.S. Senate. In his view, "COPPA's unique value lies in its flexibility, subtlety, and intentional narrowness," and he cautioned lawmakers against expanding the Act beyond its original structure and purpose: protecting children under the age of 13, primarily through enhancing parental involvement.
As Congress looks at the effectiveness of the 1998 law, some policymakers have urged, among other things, that COPPA be expanded to cover adolescents under 17 or 18 years of age. According to Szoka, such expansion would:
- Raise serious First Amendment concerns because once the age threshold rises, "it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish sites 'directed at' children below the threshold from general audience sites," potentially forcing adults to prove their age before using sites that allow sharing of user-generated content;
- Ironically, undermine privacy by compelling Internet sites to collect more information from adolescents and adults for age verification purposes, such as credit card information;
- Fail to make the online experience safer for adolescents because "the reality is that the technology for reliable age verification simply doesn't exist;" and
- Damage the commercial viability of many online sites and services, especially if it required general audience sites that are funded by tailored advertising to age-verify all users, thus raising "costs for smaller or new sites and services geared toward minors."
Szoka believes that, despite COPPA's limitations, the law "has been reasonably successful in fulfilling Congress's original goal of 'enhancing parental involvement' to protect children's online privacy and safety." He adds that it should not be expanded "beyond its original, limited purposes," and suggested that policymakers should encourage education and parental empowerment solutions as less restrictive alternatives to sweeping new "COPPA 2.0" regulations.
Szoka's oral testimony is available here and his written testimony, summarizing PFF's work in this area, is available here. He is available for comment and can be reached at email@example.com. For more information, please contact Mike Wendy at firstname.lastname@example.org, 202-969-2957.
PFF has long been a leader in online child protection issues. Szoka and PFF President, Adam Thierer, are the authors of a May 2009 paper, COPPA 2.0: The New Battle over Privacy, Age Verification, Online Safety & Free Speech. PFF also publishes a special report, "Parental Controls & Online Protection: A Survey of Tools & Methods," currently in its fourth edition, which inventories the user empowerment and education solutions available for protecting children online.
The Progress & Freedom Foundation is a market-oriented think tank that studies the digital revolution and its implications for public policy. It is a 501(c)(3) research & educational organization.