I Told Ya So

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act became law just over thirteen years ago, passed in the name of protecting children online. It imposes various obligations on Web sites providing content to children thirteen and under.

So? How’s it doing?

danah boyd (she doesn’t capitalize her name) is a skilled researcher into the worlds of social media, youth practices, “public” and “private,” social networking, and other intersections between technology and society. In a Huffington Post article published this week, she reveals conclusions from her research into COPPA and its results. Here are some choice lines from “Why Parents Help Tweens Violate Facebook’s 13+ Rule”:

COPPA is a well-intentioned piece of legislation with unintended consequences for parents, educators, and the public writ large. It has stifled innovation for sites focused on children and its implementations have made parenting more challenging. …

Rather than reinforcing or extending a legal regime that produces age-based restrictions which parents actively circumvent, we need to step back and rethink the underlying goals behind COPPA and develop new ways of achieving them. This begins with a public conversation about what it means to parent in a digital world.

That is a non-libertarian’s research-based conclusion about the COPPA law and its poor fit between means and ends—using federal Internet regulation to protect children. It echoes the words of a report issued a decade ago finding that the White House Web site had violated a Clinton administration policy applying COPPA to federal Web sites.

The difficulty of applying the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act to just one leading federal Web site … shows how governments rob people of power over information about themselves and their children. It also suggests that future privacy laws and regulations should be studied much more carefully before being put into effect. On government or private-sector Web sites, they can be deeply burdensome and have dramatic unintended effects.

That’s yours truly in a report entitled “Making the Rules, Breaking the Rules: How the “White House for Kids” Web Site Violates Federal Privacy Policy.” The report helped generate a USA Today editorial, which in turn drew a response from White House Chief of Staff John Podesta. Pretty good for a kid trying to break in the debate about privacy policy.

boyd’s research has borne out what this student of privacy told you a decade ago: Policymakers don’t know enough about society to decide how the manifold interests people pursue online can properly be protected. We have parents for that.

Our free society should decide how the Internet works and how people communicate on it.