PFF: Expanding COPPA Won't Enhance Child Safety Online

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The Project and Freedom Foundation says expanding the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) to adolescents would not enhance child online safety, would undermine privacy and would have First Amendment implications.

That is the word from Berin Szoka, a senior fellow at PFF, a free market think tank, whose backers include major cable companies, phone companies, networks and studios.

According to his prepared testimony for the Senate Commerce Committee on the bill, Szoka said efforts by some in Congress to expand the bill are misguided and could actually reduce online privacy "by requiring more information to be collected from both adolescents and adults, including credit card information."

COPPA, which requires age-verification for users or otherwise limits the ability of children to share personal info or content, is targeted to kids under 13, but there is pressure to boost that age range to include those as old as 17 or 18.

PFF argues that applying that limitation to older teens "constitutes a prior restraint on anonymous or pseudonymous communication."

One reason PFF believes expanding the bill won't make kids safer is because it would be extending an age-verification regime that isn't effective: "Unfortunately, the reality is that the technology for reliable age verification simply doesn't exist. Even the FTC has made clear that it doesn't consider COPPA's verifiable parental consent methods, such as use of a credit card, as equivalent to strict age verification."

The group is also worried that with new oversight powers given the FCC via financial reform legislation would give the FCC "sweeping new powers," the FTC would be able to expand COPPA unilaterally.

Finally, the group maintains that the government should not be so afraid of the effects of online advertising and marketing on kids. It argues that educating kids should be the government's role in "tailored marketing," rather than limiting it, suggesting that even some kids under 13 are more savvy than they are given credit for.

"Ultimately, concerns about tailored advertising may be less about privacy than about what advertising scholar Jack Calfee has dubbed the "Fear of Persuasion" -- the idea that advertising is inherently manipulative and only grows more so with increased relevance," according to PFF's testimony. But as Calfee noted, "by the age 10 or so, children develop a full understanding of the purpose of advertising and equally important, an active suspicion of what advertisers say."

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