FTC's Overzealous Attempts To 'Protect The Children' May Do Serious Harm To The Internet

from the we-don't-need-the-ftc-to-act-as-our-parents dept

Earlier this year, we were reasonably worried about the FTC’s plan to expand COPPA. COPPA — the Childrens Online Privacy Protection Act — is one of those laws that appears to have the best of intentions. Who doesn’t want to protect the privacy of children, right? But as with so many things, the unintended consequences of overprotection often outweigh the benefits. In practice, the existing COPPA, which puts significant additional burdens on sites that target children under 13, has meant that lots of websites simply ban children under 13 entirely. The end result isn’t that children under 13 are more protected, but that parents teach their kids it’s okay to lie and to sign up for sites when they’re “underage.” At the same time, this drives away lots of services that could be really helpful to children — especially educational sites.

And yet… the FTC wants to expand COPPA, rather than fix its problems. While the new proposals are not as bad as some ideas that had originally been floated, there are still some significant problems with them. As CDT notes, the unintended consequences of the broad definitions could raise significant First Amendment issues:

…we are concerned that the updated definition of when a website is “directed to children” could expand COPPA’s reach to general audience sites and confuse website owners as to whether these new rules apply to them. This uncertainty will likely prompt more sites to take advantage of the Commission’s new age-screening safe harbor, which could lead to many more sites demanding age or identifying information from all users before allowing access. Requiring age verification from every user runs counter to the First Amendment right to access information anonymously and increases the collection of potentially sensitive information generally. The new rule’s uncertainty is magnified for third party plug-in operators, who may now be liable for the decisions of publishers to embed their plug-in on sites directed to children

Similarly, TechFreedom notes some related potential problems with the new rules.

To start, by deeming persistent identifiers as personal information per se, the FTC’s new rule runs contrary to established U.S. privacy law: federal courts have unanimously decided that IP addresses do not allow the contacting of a specific individual.

Further, as Commissioner Ohlhausen’s dissent notes, the COPPA statute does not allow the FTC to impose liability on sites that do not collect children’s information merely because the operator may somehow benefit from an ad network or plug-in operator collecting information—provided the third party neither targets children nor shares information with the site operator.

If a third party becomes liable once a single employee “recognizes the child-directed nature” of a website—whatever that means—COPPA will become the worst kind of notice-and-takedown system: Would a single complaint—or tweet—from a parent or activist group create “knowledge?” Faced with the impossible task of predicting how the FTC might characterize each of the millions of sites on which ads or plug-ins might appear, operators will have to try to block advertising or plug-ins on sites that appears to be child-oriented. If they can’t do that effectively, this potential liability may effectively kill behavioral advertising on any site that can’t prove it isn’t child-oriented—in other words, on small sites.

Thus, COPPA will now impact adult sites, denying publishers revenue and adult users the functionality that is increasingly provided by embeds. Thus, the FTC invites not only a statutory challenge but also a constitutional challenge similar to that which led the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) to be struck down.

Finally, we’ve got law professor Eric Goldman, who doesn’t hold back his thoughts:

Yesterday, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (the FTC) promulgated new rules (effectively July 1, 2013) interpreting the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and the new rules are a real mess. They are riddled with innumerable ambiguities and questionable policy choices, and I could spend a decade or two trying to figure out how the new rules apply to different factual situations.

That’s not a good thing — unless you’re a lawyer. As he notes, once again, the intentions may have been good, but the implementation is a disaster:

The FTC wanted to crack down on these COPPA workarounds, but in typical FTC fashion, it did so in a ham-fisted and marble-mouthed way.

Basically, we’re talking about the usual “unintended consequences” of going overboard in trying to “protect the children!” It’s a noble goal, obviously. But, speaking as a parent as well as someone who’s aware of how these kinds of rules tend to limit innovation, I’d much prefer that the FTC actually stay out of the parenting business and leave that to me.

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Comments on “FTC's Overzealous Attempts To 'Protect The Children' May Do Serious Harm To The Internet”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Protecting children should be a parents responsibility, and they should be informed as to how to do it. Proxy server etc. are available so that a parent can filter the web their children see.
Unfortunately too many parents expect the governments to protect their children for them, regardless of the impact this has on other people. This also opens the door for those who would enforce their morals onto the rest of society by setting up government controlled filters and the means to take down material that they find offensive.

Anonymous Coward says:

as usual, the people working for the bodies that are supposed to know what they are doing and how to implement important, logical and meaningful changes, haven’t got a fucking clue and just stumble from one disaster to the next! if they truly wanted to improve the plight of children on line, they would start by employing those that know what really needs to be done and how to do it!

BeaverJuicer (profile) says:

I’d much prefer that the FTC actually stay out of the parenting business and leave that to me

But this is the US of A, where liability lawyers are the most played commercial on daytime TV. We need our coffee to say “Caution: Hot” on it so we don’t get sued when someone spills it. Buckyballs must be banned because some kid ate rare-earth magnets. If a burglar trips on the carpet, we ourselves become liable for his medical bills.

Why should we be responsible for our own actions, when we can just legislate against bad stuff, or sue?

Nanny state FTW!

/sarcastic rant

Zakida Paul says:

Raising children is not the responsibility of government, it is the responsibility of parents. If parents cannot take that responsibility seriously then they should not be having children.

I said the same thing during a discussion on the porn blocking campaign and received no end of abuse. Too many parents simply take the easy way out. They plop their kids in front of a computer/TV/console instead of actually spending time with them, or better yet, taking them outside to get some fresh air. Then, they have the audacity to complain about any ‘inappropriate’ content they may come across.

Here’s a solution, they are called PARENTAL CONTROLS for a reason.

Loki says:

Re: Re:

I agree with you to some extent.

As a parent, I see way, way to many people raising kids that really have no business doing so. Parenting is a skill just like driving a car or shooting a gun. Some people have a natural aptitude for it, just like some people can do math in their head, or other can paint with very little effort. But like any skill, most people need a lot of training, and I see very little (in comparison to other skill sets) in the way of proper training for potential parents (and quite simply some people are suited to rear children the same way some shouldn’t be allowed to drive or shoot a gun).

As far as the issue with Parental Controls, I find that to be just as much a cop-out for those who just plop their kids in front of a TV or computer. More so for those kinds of parents, in fact. “Hey my kid is *protected*, I have PARENTAL CONTROLS, therefore I don’t really need to supervise or be aware of what my lids are doing.”

I know this, because I remember being a teenager very very clearly (even if it was decades ago). And I remember quite clearly what I, and most of the kids I knew, were doing. And I was also very aware of what most parents were doing (or in most cases were not doing in actuality). I can assure from personal experience that if you are truly paying attention to what your kids are doing, and providing the proper guidance, parental controls are essentially meaningless. And if your not paying attention and providing guidance, parental controls are just an impediment that simply slows most kids down a bit.

Mike Brown (profile) says:

What, this only covers the internet? If you want to protect the children, PROTECT THE CHILDREN! If you subscribe to Playboy Channel, you should be forced to use a cable box with a keyboard, so you can enter your drivers license number every time you tune to that channel. Heck, if a story on the news could potentially be disturbing, you should have to enter it then, too–but be quick about it or you’ll miss the story. Oh yeah, if you get naughty magazines like Playboy or National Geographic, the mailman should have to card you before he can leave in in your mailbox. /s

Anonymous Coward says:

One day, maybe 10 years back, every single parent woke up and decided that protecting their children was not a part of their responsibilities anymore. That day, all of them united to vote for a nanny governement. Oh look Obamanany.

Then everyone clearly decided that using free tools like netnanny built into your router was useless, because you could sue everyone for making porn online with 100 18+ warnings and disclaimers.

Just for once, I wish we’d blame the parents. Just this once. I know, it’s not politically correct and parents claiming to be good ones will throw a hissy fit, but it’s still a fact and the truth: parents to not take responsibility for the (lack of?) actions or their kids’ lack of education or protection.

Stop passing stupid anti-internet laws, and instead make parents take an exam to become a parent. Problem solved, and it costs no more than a driver’s license.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

And when parents took the time to teach their kids gun safety, we didn’t have all these school shootings. People didn’t use to freak out over kids and firearms. Why? Because parents did their job as parents. I grew up in a home full of guns, and my parents taught me firearm responsibility. For one thing, they taught me that I wasn’t to touch a gun unless at least one of them was there. Prents nowadays either can’t be bothered, or they teach their kids that guns are evil, forbidden things.

Joe says:

Re: Re: Re:

Mine taught me even better:
If you don’t want to put very nasty holes in stuff, don’t point knives, guns, rockets, cars, fists, rocks, spears, dogs, kids, etc. at them. 😉 Kind of goes along with the NRA crowd’s “Always assume it’s loaded” concept, come to think of it. I learned very quickly that box cutters s**k if you’re not paying attention.

Anonymous Coward says:

Lieing to get your way !!!! teaching children to lie !

but that parents teach their kids it’s okay to lie and to sign up for sites when they’re “underage.”

I believe you have kids Masnick, are you saying you teach your kids to lie?

Anyone with a sub-13 year old, who is teaching them to lie so they can get on social media IS A MORON..

Do you have ANY IDEA of what being a responsible parent means ????

lets hope the laws are changed making the loser parents responsible for anything that happens to their children.

you’re even willing to lie to get what you want !!!!! what worse, your willing to teach your preteen children to lie and that lying is OK.

Anonymous Coward says:

Masnick advocates lying to get what you want.

it’s all out now, If masnick thinks it is to his benefit he will lie, and get other to lie.

masnick does not think he needs to constantly monitor your young, vulnerable children when they are on the internet.

so if you are willing to lie, are you also willing to steal? I guess so, that appears to be the message you put out there.

“If Masnick can benefit from it, he is willing to say or do anything to achieve that, truth or not, legal or not”

He knows if he can get a heap of other people to do it, it does not look so bad for him, he can blend in with the crowd. SAD

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Masnick advocates lying to get what you want.

“masnick does not think he needs to constantly monitor your young, vulnerable children when they are on the internet.”

Good! I would hope that Masnick does not feel a need to monitor MY children!

OK, but seriously, we HAVE parental controls. Parents can use whitelists if they want to, or just set things so they can monitor which sites are used. There’s no reason why it should be the website’s job to block underage users.

Loki says:

Unfortunately, when you have spent enough time going through the documentation and various initiatives, and studying the results of our policies regarding children, the data clearly shows that pretty much every effort to “Protect The Children” since at least Columbine has in fact created a lot more harm to far more children than it has helped.

Ninja (profile) says:

I wish the moral police would leave the children alone. In the future we’ll come to a point where all children will be treated as a bunch of retards (no offense meant) and will grow up without basic understand of how real life works and turn into disturbed/clueless adults.

We should collectively ask the FTC it’s ok, they don’t need to try to protect the children anymore. Before it’s too late and they harm our children permanently.

As I said before, humanity is setting up its own demise in multiple fronts.

Digitari says:

RE: Protect Children

I think the best way to protect Children is to NOT HAVE THEM!!!!

BAN children and families that have them from using the internet, Problem Solved..

Did you know the 100% of children grow up, grow OLD, then DIE???

How Cruel of parents to have children, when they know that at some point in their lives, they ALL die. THAT’S abuse!!!

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