The Internet is a vast, powerful, dangerous, fun, scary, wonderful place. And because of those six adjectives, it a place best visited with parental supervision. At least, that’s what the government thinks.
The Federal Trade Commission is in the process of revamping a decade-old piece of legislation designed to protect children on the Internet. The Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) regulates how data is collected on children under the age of 13. Broadly speaking, websites are not allowed to collect personal information on children without explicit parental consent, and even then, there are some restrictions on marketing to those children.
The FTC isn’t afraid of enforcing the provisions of the law, either. In fact, they’re quite aggressive about it. On Wednesday, the company behind wildly popular fan sites for Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Rihanna agreed to pay a $1 million fine for illegally collecting personal information from over 100,000 children without parental consent, including but not limited to details like names, addresses and cell phone numbers. “Marketers need to know that even a bad case of Bieber Fever doesn’t excuse their legal obligation to get parental consent before collecting personal information from children,” FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a cheesy statement.
The Bieber case highlights a challenging reality, though. When COPPA was written back in 1998, the Internet was a very different place than it is today. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. Heck, there were no smartphones, no apps, no share buttons. The social web, in which we spend so much time sharing fingerprints of where we’ve been — fingerprints that advertisers love — was nothing like it is today. And this is why the FTC is expanding COPPA to cover these new zones in the online ecosystem.
Nevertheless, even under the existing law, it’s hard to keep tabs on what kids are doing online. The majority of American youths own a smartphone and have Internet access at their fingertips. Even under the existing law, an estimated 76 percent of parents say their kids created Facebook profiles before the age of 13. Did they all have explicit consent? Probably not, and Facebook is working on ways to get even more kids on its social network.
Unsurprisingly, Facebook and friends are not happy about a new, more aggressive COPPA. Earlier this week, a slew of Silicon Valley companies responded to the proposed changes in the law. Guess what? They don’t like them one bit. One major change in the new law is a restriction on collecting data from plugins like the share buttons for Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and so forth. Each time these buttons are clicked, that information goes into a database that can be used for targeted advertising, and now, the FTC wants to regulate that space. Twitter called the new provisions “unworkable.” Facebook said it “raises First Amendment concerns.” Google said it would “undermine the ability of sites and services to provide engaging online resources to children.”
Keeping kids from feeding Facebook’s advertising machine feels like the right thing to do, even if the social network has to tinker with its code a bit to make it happen. I doubt the Like button would fade away into obscurity, robbing Facebook of billions of dollars. And who are these companies that want to illegally collect data on children anyways?
There is another side to the coin, though. Education companies are also complaining about the new restrictions, saying that it limits how much it can help kids learn. The ACT also sent comments to the FTC and said that the new COPPA provisions “eliminates the ability to collect non-personal information to assist in furthering the educational goals of apps.” So is it okay to collect data from children if it’s for educational purposes?
This all really depends on how the data is being collected. For now, it’s the wild west out there. The existing methods of tracking are essentially unregulated and subject to abuse from folks like that Justin Bieber fan site company. We all know that Internet companies hate regulation, and while there might be a capitalistic argument for why we should keep the Internet as unregulated as possible, there’s a moral argument for why we should put in a little bit of extra work for the safety and security of our nation’s youth. Surely, the Silicon Valley and the FTC can find a workable compromise. Jim Steyer, head of child advocacy group Common Sense Media in San Francisco and a professor at Stanford University, made a pretty good point when he talked to The Washington Post about the new COPPA provisions. “It’s a pathetic argument for the richest companies in the world to say they don’t have the resources or ability to protect children.”