Senator Markey’s Do Not Track Kids Act of 2013 Raises the Question: What’s the Point of COPPA?

Ben Sperry —  20 November 2013

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) continues to be a hot button issue for many online businesses and privacy advocates. On November 14, Senator Markey, along with Senator Kirk and Representatives Barton and Rush introduced the Do Not Track Kids Act of 2013 to amend the statute to include children from 13-15 and add new requirements, like an eraser button. The current COPPA Rule, since the FTC’s recent update went into effect this past summer, requires parental consent before businesses can collect information about children online, including relatively de-identified information like IP addresses and device numbers that allow for targeted advertising.

Often, the debate about COPPA is framed in a way that makes it very difficult to discuss as a policy matter. With the stated purpose of “enhanc[ing] parental involvement in children’s online activities in order to protect children’s privacy,” who can really object? While there is recognition that there are substantial costs to COPPA compliance (including foregone innovation and investment in children’s media), it’s generally taken for granted by all that the Rule is necessary to protect children online. But it has never been clear what COPPA is supposed to help us protect our children from.

Then-Representative Markey’s original speech suggested one possible answer in “protect[ing] children’s safety when they visit and post information on public chat rooms and message boards.” If COPPA is to be understood in this light, the newest COPPA revision from the FTC and the proposed Do Not Track Kids Act of 2013 largely miss the mark. It seems unlikely that proponents worry about children or teens posting their IP address or device numbers online, allowing online predators to look at this information and track them down. Rather, the clear goal animating the updates to COPPA is to “protect” children from online behavioral advertising. Here’s now-Senator Markey’s press statement:

“The speed with which Facebook is pushing teens to share their sensitive, personal information widely and publicly online must spur Congress to act commensurately to put strong privacy protections on the books for teens and parents,” said Senator Markey. “Now is the time to pass the bipartisan Do Not Track Kids Act so that children and teens don’t have their information collected and sold to the highest bidder. Corporations like Facebook should not be profiting from the personal and sensitive information of children and teens, and parents and teens should have the right to control their personal information online.”

The concern about online behavioral advertising could probably be understood in at least three ways, but each of them is flawed.

  1. Creepiness. Some people believe there is something just “creepy” about companies collecting data on consumers, especially when it comes to children and teens. While nearly everyone would agree that surreptitiously collecting data like email addresses or physical addresses without consent is wrong, many would probably prefer to trade data like IP addresses and device numbers for free content (as nearly everyone does every day on the Internet). It is also unclear that COPPA is the answer to this type of problem, even if it could be defined. As Adam Thierer has pointed out, parents are in a much better position than government regulators or even companies to protect their children from privacy practices they don’t like.
  2. Exploitation. Another way to understand the concern is that companies are exploiting consumers by making money off their data without consumers getting any value. But this fundamentally ignores the multi-sided market at play here. Users trade information for a free service, whether it be Facebook, Google, or Twitter. These services then monetize that information by creating profiles and selling that to advertisers. Advertisers then place ads based on that information with the hopes of increasing sales. In the end, though, companies make money only when consumers buy their products. Free content funded by such advertising is likely a win-win-win for everyone involved.
  3. False Consciousness. A third way to understand the concern over behavioral advertising is that corporations can convince consumers to buy things they don’t need or really want through advertising. Much of this is driven by what Jack Calfee called The Fear of Persuasion: many people don’t understand the beneficial effects of advertising in increasing the information available to consumers and, as a result, misdiagnose the role of advertising. Even accepting this false consciousness theory, the difficulty for COPPA is that no one has ever explained why advertising is a harm to children or teens. If anything, online behavioral advertising is less of a harm to teens and children than adults for one simple reason: Children and teens can’t (usually) buy anything! Kids and teens need their parents’ credit cards in order to buy stuff online. This means that parental involvement is already necessary, and has little need of further empowerment by government regulation.

COPPA may have benefits in preserving children’s safety — as Markey once put it — beyond what underlying laws, industry self-regulation and parental involvement can offer. But as we work to update the law, we shouldn’t allow the Rule to be a solution in search of a problem. It is incumbent upon Markey and other supporters of the latest amendment to demonstrate that the amendment will serve to actually protect kids from something they need protecting from. Absent that, the costs very likely outweigh the benefits.

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