Much changed since Children’s Online Protection, Privacy Act became law

| Mark Pattison | October 26, 2018 | 0 Comments
COPPA, Social Media and children

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Twenty years ago, the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act passed Congress and was signed into law.

What concerned parents and privacy advocates in the years leading up to the law’s passage was that some companies were using this relatively new thing called the internet to solicit personal information from their children.

The internet was not nearly as sophisticated in 1998. Back then, Web developers had to ask children to submit this information, which could be used for marketing, selling or goodness knows what.

Of course, 1998 was before Facebook, before Twitter, before Instagram, before Snapchat, before tablets, before smartphones, before user “terms and conditions” clauses that halt website users in their tracks unless they agree to those terms and conditions, and before “cookies,” which developers use to track users’ Web and website histories.

“At the time of the early Nineties, advertising was not the dominant feature of the internet. Advertising for children was largely on television,” said Katharina Kopp, deputy director of the Center for Digital Democracy, during an Oct. 24 conference at Georgetown Law School marking the 20th anniversary of the law, known as COPPA.

One spur for the law was a 1996 report, “Web of Deception,” outlining the practices of the website kids.com, which is no longer active, Kopp said at the conference, “COPPA at 20: Protecting Children’s Privacy in the New Digital Era.”

What else was different 20 years ago? “The way I accessed technology as a teenager (when COPPA became law), my parents always knew what was going on because I was in the room with them,” as her parents’ bedroom was home to home’s sole computer — a desktop model — said Sara Kloek, director of education policy for the Software & Information Industry Association.

Morgan Reed, president of ACT-The App Association, said he grew up in Alaska, where “no one had any clue what we were doing. No one had any idea of the social drama that we enacted.”

And is that ever different, he added.

“In the Seventies, parents had no idea. Parents are more aware now,” Reed said. Then, he noted, “the drama had a limit,” but now it can be spread as worldwide as the World Wide Web. Even so, Reed added, “the adopting of mobile technology is the fastest adaptation in history,” faster even than fire. “We now have 7 billion people with access to the world’s information at their fingertips. … Everybody’s got a smartphone in front of them, Americans are never more than 3 feet from their device.”

That kind of ubiquity poses its own challenges.

Online, “there has been a huge growth in the advertising market for children,” Kopp said, asserting growth rates of “25 percent year after year.” Answering a question posed by Reed as to whether COPPA was about privacy or about advertising, Kopp responded, ” You cannot separate privacy and data from advertising.”

“The things that have changed dramatically since 2012,” when COPPA was fortified to meet some of the problems posed in the digital age, are “business practices and consumer expectations,” Kloek said. Consumers, she added, are better at communicating their expectations with companies and are more adept at both supporting good corporate behavior and shunning bad behavior.

Reed warned that children were apt to get “lamer apps” if privacy protections grow too stringent. He said the firms who try to abide by the letter of the law suffer because parents don’t want to take the time to go through privacy-protection rules and have to make choices online, calling anything that interrupts the user’s intended experience on a site “friction.” As a result, parents and their kids will gravitate toward “the sugary-snack app,” which ignores data-collection and privacy rules.

While the Federal Trade Commission has fined 24 companies for ignoring or violating COPPA rules on misusing data, Reed said he thought that number is too small to deter the sugary-snack app makers.

But David Vladeck, a Georgetown Law School professor who moderated a separate panel during the conference, recalled “the headlines when the FTC got a $3 million fine against Disney” — and it wasn’t even Disney’s fault, but the fault of a company that was being investigated before Disney bought it. “That case saved 100 other cases,” Vladeck said.

Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service. Follow him on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison

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Category: U.S. & World News