FTC's Attempt To Broadly Expand Misguided Child Protection Law Will Chill Innovation

from the well-meaning,-but-bad-policy dept

We've written a few times about the Childrens Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and how it was put in place without any data and without much concern for unintended consequences. As danah boyd has shown in her research, COPPA hasn't necessarily done much to protect children. Instead, it's made parents teach their kids it's okay to lie about their age. It's also why so many websites have seemingly arbitrary restrictions on kids under the age of 13. It's one of those "think of the children" laws that people want to like because it sounds good, and no one wants to support big businesses preying on children. But, the reality is that it has tremendous problems -- unintended consequences that limit various services -- and does little to actually protect children.

And, of course, the FTC wants to expand it even further.

They're asking for comments on the proposed changes in the rules, and if you develop websites or apps, you might want to speak up. CDT has put together a letter people can sign if they don't want to write up some comments themselves. They also have explained many of the problems with the new proposals. For example, it expands what COPPA applies to in very broad ways, potentially creating liability for developers without them even realizing it:
The FTC plans to put COPPA obligations on plugin developers if they “know or have reason to know” that their plugin has been installed on a children’s site. “Plugins” include analytics providers, advertising networks, social media plugins, embedded videos, or anyone else who provides third-party code for websites. Under the FTC's proposed change, if plugin developers receive a user’s IP address through a plugin that’s been installed on a children’s site, they could face legal liability for collecting children’s personal information.

It’s unclear how a plugin or platform like Twitter is supposed to “know or have reason to know” that someone has cut and pasted a line of their code into a children’s site. The FTC says that plugin developers “will not be free to ignore credible information brought to their attention.” But the FTC doesn’t say what counts as “credible.” Would developers have to assume every random e-mail is a credible tip that could saddle them with legal liability? Even if the FTC did provide clarity, though, it would still be extraordinarily burdensome to place legal obligations on plugin developers based on the actions of others.
The end result would almost certainly involve those companies putting a lot more limits on their apps, and create a huge cost (and potential liability) for all sorts of plugin and app writers. But there's an even bigger problem. While COPPA was clearly limited at sites directed at children, the FTC seems to think this wasn't enough, because other sites not directed at children might still attract children... and so they want this problematic rule to expand to sites who don't even cater to children:
Things get worse with the FTC’s second major proposal: expanding the scope of sites deemed “directed to children” from sites aimed primarily at a very young audience to include sites and services that are “likely to attract an audience that includes a disproportionately large percentage of children under 13 as compared to the percentage of such children in the general population.”

This convoluted standard raises a number of serious issues. Not only is it difficult for site operators to gauge what proportions of their audience fall into arbitrary age buckets, but the FTC also gives operators no sense of what it means for an audience to be “disproportionately” composed of children in comparison to the general population. If a site’s audience is 20 percent children, is it disproportionately composed of children? What about at 30 percent? It’s not clear from the language, and it won’t be clear to website operators trying to run their sites while staying within the bounds of the law.
In fact, as CDT notes, this change almost certainly will do the exact opposite of what the rule intends. That is, it will make sites feel they need to collect more data about who is accessing their sites to make sure that they know if their audience includes kids, in which case they'll have to take steps. But that means they'll be... collecting more data about kids -- which is exactly what COPPA is supposed to stop.

The FTC folks who support COPPA are certainly well meaning, but they seem to have little concern or interest about the real impact of the law and their specific rules around it, and how it not only fails to help protect children, but puts a serious damper on innovation as well.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 21st, 2012 @ 5:43pm

    Fuck children, make money.

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 21st, 2012 @ 5:59pm

    This is a classic example of the government trying to be parental guardians. I can understand a school (K-12 in US standards) blocking certain sites, but the sites themselves have no legal obligation to stop children from viewing them. By placing a I'm over 18 button on the site, the only thing you are encouraging is children to lie about their age. It's the parent's responsibilities to deny children access to such media, if the parents are incompetent that is not the site or advertiser's fault.

    One thing I do object to though is the Do Not Track option being completely ignored, and I think Apache is completely wrong in their assumption.
    Huffington Post Link for the basics.
    Ars Technica article on Apache.

     

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      Dave Xanatos, Sep 21st, 2012 @ 6:26pm

      Re:

      It is insulting to us parents that the government feels the need to insert itself into the parenting process. Especially as it is dramatically worse at it than most parents, and over such non_issues.

      I give my kids simple and straight forward rules about online behavior that apply to all sites and I pay attention to where they go and what they do, giving reminders as necessary. This is orders of magnitude better than their idiotic and poorly thought out laws.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Sep 22nd, 2012 @ 7:47pm

      Re:

      It is actually a classic example of one of the standard tools of the incompetent bureaucrat - the imaginary threat. That allows the bureaucrats to "deal" with the "threat" with no danger of being held accountable for not solving the problem. There never was a problem in the first place, so there is no need to do anything effective. It can be all talk and enforcing silly rules, etc. The bureaucracy spins its wheels at vast expense to the taxpayer. Then somebody from outside the bureaucracy has to expend significant effort proving that the expenditure is useless. That is difficult, so this form of extravagance can go on for many years. If you are wondering why your taxes are so high, the imaginary threat is one of the major causes.

      Ask kids themselves what are the actual threats to their welfare. Kids have their own brains and many of them are smart. They hate attempts to protect them from imaginary threats while ignoring real threats. The answers you will get from the kids will be far better than anything any bureaucrat can come up with. Then take some notice.

       

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  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 21st, 2012 @ 6:00pm

    Masnick as usual, you have failed to explain what these new rules entail and how they will adversly effect web sites.

    all you've done is have a bit of a cry, and engage in some fear mongering.

    you might be willing to teach your kids to lie, (you seem to do that alot yourself), but more RESPONSIBLE people will want to know what this group want to do.

    you have (as usual) totally FAIL to detail anything that these rules or guildlines involve and why you think those measures will have a adverse effect.

    why did you not do you own research Masnick ??? instead as usual you just steal the opinions off someone else. your idea of research is to Google something, cut and paste and job done.. wait for the Google cheque.

    but I guess it's the weekend and you have to try to post something that will make enough hits to keep the cash rolling in..

    why do you always repost others opinions, and 'comment' on them, ever heard of creating an ORIGINAL post ??

    or are you simply not good enough to form your own opinion ?

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Sep 21st, 2012 @ 6:14pm

      Re:

      This is obviously a troll statement.
      So I run a porn website, and use an advertizement company to gain additional revenue. Since the browser is looking for porn, should the advertiser or the website be liable because your child decided to lie about his age?
      Grow up and be a freaking parent, or don't allow your children to use the computer unsupervised.

       

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        identicon
        abc gum, Sep 22nd, 2012 @ 7:30am

        Re: Re:

        "Grow up and be a freaking parent, or don't allow your children to use the computer unsupervised."

        Some people would like the government to do their job for them and they believe themselves to be experts in what is best for everyone else. Sad really.

         

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      Dave Xanatos, Sep 21st, 2012 @ 6:16pm

      Re:

      Reading comprehension fail. The problems are ambiguity and liability. Add those to the complete lack of evidence that the current law has had any positive effects at all, and you have a real feel good piece of 'empty calories' legislation.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Sep 21st, 2012 @ 7:37pm

      Re:

      1) It's not fear mongering; read the entire article being referenced, or read just the excerpts that get across the point quite well.

      2) the exact rules being proposed are somewhat irrelevant; anyone with half a brain and a passing knowledge of the history of internet legislation would know what to expect based on "children" + "internet". If you read the Ars article, you'd also know that those expectations are, if anything, more tame than the actual sentiments expressed by the FTC.

      3) Techdirt has - literally - 1 ad per page. Mike has made it previously clear that Techdirt the blog is not generating funds by advertising deals; aside from anything so meaningless as words, you may also note that:
      -Techdirt Lite, the mobile version, has no ads
      -Techdirt does not use "behind the break" links for stories to increase page loads and thus ad impressions
      -Techdirt uses a full-text RSS feed, again without ads, to let people read the site in the way most convenient to them
      -There is exactly 1 ad per page, regardless of page size
      -Mike has been extremely clear that he allows full text reposting of his work

      3) Techdirt primarily covers secondhand events (what we usually call "news"). "Commenting", which you seem so dismissive of, is the only thing one can do unless actively involved in the event. You are also commenting; what's the matter, are you not smart enough to make your own opinions?

      4) There are at least 5 or six things from the past two days that consist of Mike disagreeing with other people. Like on the same front page as this post, where he disagrees with the EFF about privacy.

       

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        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Sep 22nd, 2012 @ 6:59am

        Re: Re:

        Mike has made it previously clear that Techdirt the blog is not generating funds by advertising deals

        Techdirt, and whatever else Masnick is engaged in, is funded by Google and other anti-IP corporations and entities. Duh.

         

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        •  
          identicon
          abc gum, Sep 22nd, 2012 @ 7:33am

          Re: Re: Re:

          "Techdirt, and whatever else Masnick is engaged in, is funded by Google and other anti-IP corporations and entities. Duh."

          lol - big search, big piracy, big big

           

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 21st, 2012 @ 6:23pm

    If they want to protect children, they'll need to make a separate Internet for them, because there's no way the one we have will ever be safe enough for them.

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Sep 21st, 2012 @ 6:52pm

      Re:

      Every parent can. You can do the pre-made deal like NetNanny, you can block with ACLs (Access Control Lists) in most routers, or you can go the free route with Squid and run a proxy server. The technology has always been there, it's just end-user error in not implementing it.

       

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Sep 21st, 2012 @ 7:01pm

      Re:

      An internet for children, a place guaranteed to be full of children, a perfect target for paedophiles. OOOOOoooh scary

       

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      •  
        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Sep 21st, 2012 @ 7:16pm

        Re: Re:

        Honestly, blocking is the way to go for parents.
        So for example, I could limit my child to be a stalker of Dark Helmet, by simply using squid to block everything but TechDirt and articles and comments by him through squid with some simple scripting magic.

         

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    orbitalinsertion (profile), Sep 21st, 2012 @ 7:20pm

    But, but, but... if websites can't track children, that will cut way into the RIAA's business of legally extorting people for allegedly downloading infringing music by removing from the ecosystem loads of data which they like to subpoena from websites. Metric craptons of those pirates are kids!

    The law of unintended consequences: Screwing with the RIAA's business model.

     

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    Applesauce, Sep 21st, 2012 @ 7:21pm

    "The FTC folks who support COPPA are certainly well meaning..."

    Where is the evidence for this claim?

     

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    •  
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      Paraquat (profile), Sep 21st, 2012 @ 7:52pm

      Re:

      You've got it right, Applesauce. America is fast turning into a police state, with more people imprisoned (both as a percentage and actual numbers) than any other country. Privatized for-profit prisons makes it important to keep the prisons full. Best way to do that is to make everything illegal, and enforce selectively (put mostly poorer folks in jail, the rich are above the law). Having laws so vague that nobody can comply helps to keep the prison-industrial complex in business.

       

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  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 21st, 2012 @ 8:05pm

    Well, I am glad mike is here to tell us exactly how a proposed piece will effect the net, even though it doesn't exist and has never been used, he knows how it will fully interact with the internet and every outcome of it, if only Mike ruled the world, everything would be roses and content free and owned by all, mikes little happy utopia....

     

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    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Sep 21st, 2012 @ 10:03pm

    I have a much less overreaching idea to put into law.
    Making parents responsible for their own children.

    Don't want your kid on Facebook, then tell them no and if they break your rules take away the computer, cell phone, etc.
    At some point it became a "crime" for parents to have to tell their children no, and they instead are demanding everyone else do it for them so they can look like the good guy.

    We have a society now where a mother dialed the emergency police number because her son wouldn't stop playing Xbox.
    We regularly have people dialing 911 because a fast food restaurant messed up an order.
    We have people screaming its the plastic crap in the Happy Meal making their kids fat, not them taking their child to the restaurant and buying them the high calorie food.

    I'm really tired of society having to adapt to people who think because they pumped out a kid, the village needs to change to keep their snowflake safe.
    We need laws to stop harmful chemicals out of toys, we don't need laws making it a crime for an adult to be near a park without a kid. We don't need to wrap the whole planet in nerf so parents don't have to actually supervise their kids.

     

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 22nd, 2012 @ 2:44am

    Yes indeed let's go out and kill people "for the children of course"

    Well if it's for the children I suppose it's okay.

    Using minors as a reason to make fucked up laws is a pretty fucking sad thing to do. The parents DO NOT need the government to do their fucking job for them. Get your goddamn noses out of peoples fucking lives. If kids are fucking up point the blame to where it's deserved THE FUCKING PARENTS!! NOT TV! NOT THE INTERNET! NOT TOO MUCH FAST FOOD! NOT OTHER FUCKED UP KIDS!

     

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    Philly Bob (profile), Sep 22nd, 2012 @ 9:25am

    FTC et al...

    How did the human race ever make it through 5000 years without the help of our government? We should be extinct now without their "guidance". For your copy of "How To Raise Your Children In The Eyes Of The Law" just send all your tax dollars to...

     

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    william (profile), Sep 24th, 2012 @ 11:23am

    It's a long term Internet myth that you can actually tell the age of the person on the other end of the tubes.

    Therefore, I am making a proposal to FTC.

    FTC is to set up a site, which will take emails and also a simple age verification system/drop down/whatever they want. I'll have 5000 people send in an email each, and the other 5000 people go through the age verification form. If the FTC is able to 100% identi...nay, let say 80% successfully identify those who are children and who are adults, I'll agree to the new proposal.

    Deal?

     

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    identicon
    relghuar, Sep 25th, 2012 @ 12:29am

    Well meaning WHAT?

    "The FTC folks who support COPPA are certainly well meaning, but they seem to have little concern or interest about the real impact of the law..."

    How does having little concern or interest about the impact of the law even REMOTELY come together with meaning well??
    That sentence should blow apart any moment...

     

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