Want to Keep Kids Safe Online? Don't Just 'Do Something.'

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In the wake of recent documents released by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, Congress has laser-focused on protecting children from the perceived dangers of the internet.

This has resulted in new proposals to expand the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and the reintroduction of the Kids Internet Design and Safety (KIDS) Act as American lawmakers push for policy changes. But the haste of our politicians to “do something” could make it harder for parents and websites to help kids and keep them safe online. Unfortunately, most of the policies currently up for consideration will result in poor policy interventions that undermine the positive impact of technology, worsen the digital divide, and make children less safe on the internet.

These proposals all center on adapting and advancing COPPA, a bill initially passed in 1998 to protect children online by preventing the potential abuse of children’s data by nefarious actors including child predators. After almost 25 years, COPPA still faces many questions about its potential enforcement and specific elements. Our lawmakers should be careful about the practical effects of implementing new COPPA-style regulations.

While this new “COPPA 2.0” does retain some good elements from the original law that protect children and provide safe harbor laws, it would exacerbate COPPA’s current issues. In fact, it does nothing to address concerns about how such restrictions could discourage innovators from offering the best products to families, raise the cost of products that no longer can engage in advertising, or affect new gray areas such as the rise of family vloggers on YouTube.

The KIDS Act would make it harder to offer ad-supported apps or online services to those under the age of 16, which could harm educational services that families across the country benefit as many apps that currently have a minimum age of 13 would have to raise it to 16. While it is fair to be concerned about the use of children’s data, such actions will impact more than just social media, and could limit the availability of apps and raise the cost by eliminating this option. The result would potentially further the inequality of technology access, raising the prices for families and schools. Beyond that, it would make it harder for services to assist teenagers navigating difficult and sensitive topics such as sexuality, religion, or bullying that kids may not be able to discuss at home. These difficult choices already exist for the innovators of apps aimed at children and tweens. If we further raise the costs and risks associated with making appropriate services for young people, we should expect innovation in this space to weaken even more than it already has. And the KIDS Act specifically would spread this problem to services designed for teenagers aged 13-16. This could include a wide range of apps that help young teens navigate difficult issues, including anti-bullying apps or sexual health education.

The most concerning feature of the KIDS Act is its “eraser button” — a tool that could easily be abused by bullies and child predators and put children at greater risk online. The bill would provide a “right to deletion” that would require companies to delete the data of users if they were under 16 at the time, with very few exceptions. With a single request, bullies could use this to hide evidence of their malice and child predators could push their potential victims to invoke this right and hide content from their parents before any laws had even been violated. 

Frances Haugen brought up very real issues facing America’s kids during the Facebook whistleblower hearing. But we need to examine the impact any targeted policy responses could have on current efforts to keep children safe online. It’s understandable our lawmakers want to respond and modify COPPA, but as it stands, the current proposal could harm innovation and create entirely new concerns for the very parents and families it was designed to protect.

Policymakers should build on the strength of COPPA’s existing safe harbors and its original intent rather than allow an over-zealous desire to “do something” to result in policy that diminishes the benefits of technology for children and teens.

Jennifer Huddleston is Policy Counsel at NetChoice where she focuses on emerging technology issues like privacy, competition policy, and intermediary liability.

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