This week EFF joined the Progress & Freedom Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology in comments to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), urging the FTC not to turn the law into an age-verification mandate for the Internet.
Under COPPA, most websites that are "directed to" kids have to get parental consent before anyone under 13 can use them. But if a site is a general audience site -- i.e. not "directed to" kids -- then there's no duty to obtain parental consent from anyone unless/until the site has actual knowledge that the person is under 13. Now, FTC and Congress are considering expanding the statute to cover teenagers, as well. But these changes would have wide-ranging ramifications for free speech, privacy, and anonymity online.
While a site for pre-teens is likely to have content aimed squarely at that age group, many older teens use the same use Internet services that adults do. If a site with a mixed-age user base is liable for letting kids use its services without a parents' permission, then it will likely set up elaborate age-verification for everyone. Of course, the more information a website collects, the more chances there are for it to get into the hands of a marketing company, a hacker, or someone who has filed a subpoena for it. Also, it makes it much harder to exercise your right be anonymous on the Internet. Another important factor to consider is the free speech rights of older teenagers. At that age, there are a lot of ideas and information that they want to explore that they might not tell their parents about -- for example, they might have questions about sexual health that they are too embarrassed to ask adults about.
Expanding the age-range for COPPA could drastically change the way everyone uses the Internet -- not just teenagers. We hope the FTC considers these important issues, and does not turn COPPA into a sweeping age-verification mandate.