Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Parents Defeat the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)


COPPA is the whipping boy of Facebook, Google, and other web sites that do not allow children under the age of 13 to participate. COPPA institutes legal obligations to maintain basic levels of privacy for children under 13. Once a kid turns 14 all bets are off and there is no significant legal protection against the exploitation of personal information in the United States. For clearing houses of personal information, such as Google and Facebook, the logic goes that if the law prevents them from exploiting children’s private information it’s better to deny them access and blame the government for requiring a modicum of decency.

As I was investigating the recent FTC settlement with Facebook, I stumbled across a goldmine of information in a place I wasn’t expecting to find one. Who would have known that a law firm that specializes in advertising law would be such a great resource? So to start, a hat tip to Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP (http://www.manatt.com/default.aspx), in particular their newsletter areas where I came across an article titled “Parents Help Kids Violate COPPA” at http://www.manatt.com/newsletter-areas.aspx?id=15442#Article7. (You have to scroll down a bit to find it.)

The article distills Information from a study titled “Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age: Unintended consequences of the ‘Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act’” and indicates that the majority of underage children who join Facebook are doing so with the deliberate assistance of their parents. In other words, their parents are helping their kids to lie about their age. Of 1007 parents interviewed, exactly 2 knew that Facebook’s age restrictions had anything to do with privacy. For the Big Bang Theory crowd, that’s about 0.19860973187686196623634558093347% of parents who know that privacy is the reason for Facebook and Google’s age restrictions

The report is a very interesting read and can be found at http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3850/3075.

While COPPA was designed to curb privacy abuses, rather than step up to the plate and offer ethical services, the reports states “…Federal Trade Commission has conceded that, in response to COPPA, online industries have generally neither innovated nor emphasized mechanisms for obtaining verifiable parental consent”

The crux of the report is summarized in the Manatt article as:

Instead, based on the research data, the report “propose[s] that policy-makers shift away from privacy regulation models that are based on age or other demographic categories and, instead, develop universal privacy protections for online users.”

This is really the insane notion that organizations, such as Facebook and Google should not only afford better privacy practices to children because they are legally required to, but to all people because it is the right thing to do.

Protecting the privacy of children is something Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has vowed to fight. The report states “Mozelle Thompson — a member of Facebook’s advisory board who is also a former FTC commissioner — asserted that “Facebook removes 20,000 people a day, people who are underage” and then continues with “And while Facebook takes steps to remove underage users, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated at a talk on education that Facebook only imposes the under–13 prohibition because of COPPA’s restrictions (Lev–Ram, 2011). He argued that younger children should be allowed to get on Facebook because doing so is an important part of the educational process. With regard to COPPA, Zuckerberg stated, “That will be a fight we take on at some point”

The research is timely and relevant because, as the Manatt newsletter points out:

Why it matters:  The report comes as the Federal Trade Commission considers updates to COPPA and federal legislators debate the enactment of national privacy legislation, including the "Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011,” which would expand the protections of COPPA.”

Randy Abrams
Independent Security Analyst

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