Some US Senators this week lurched towards yet another false oasis in the Great Internet Safety Desert. Once again, their misguided search for the kids privacy oasis has the potential to cause far more harm than good.
Under the proposed law, kids will have to get their parent’s permission to participate in major websites until they are 16 years old. Yes, that’s right, the same year most young adults can operate a 2,000 pound vehicle on their own will be the same year they can also freely use websites like Google Maps or services like FourSquare.
Requiring website operators to solicit consent from parents for anyone 15 years old places undue regulations on the Internet while providing little safety or privacy benefit.
The same year most young adults can operate a 2,000 pound vehicle on their own will be the same year they can also freely use websites like Google Maps or services like FourSquare.
Today, regulations (COPPA – Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) require parental participation for children up to the age was 13 for applies to any site or service that is “directed” to children. Does an expansion of 2 years matter? You better believe it.
First, the content directed at 15 year olds is different from content directed at children. Content or social networks focused on young children (i.e. Club Penguin) – are easily identified. The subject matter and communities teenagers are engaging are far more diverse. But under this law, sites and services directed at High Schoolers now have less incentive to innovate or develop new content.
Second, we already know COPPA is ineffective for the 13 and under crowd. Dana Boyd’s research makes it clear that parents are already taking it into their own hands to decide when their children are ready to participate in social networks, regardless of what COPPA says. Extending the age of protection to 15 will only increase dishonesty online and undermine COPPA’s objectives. And when minors lie about their age, it becomes harder for service providers to provide age appropriate material. We should encourage honesty online, not discourage it by limiting a 15 year-old’s access to content.
COPPA’s core objective of protecting the personal information of children is a good goal. However, doubling down on a system that is proven to not work while also limiting teenagers’ ability to seek out valuable information is a mistake. We all have an obligation to dispel the misplaced promises of this privacy mirage.