Marks 20th anniversary of COPPA with call for updates, vigilance

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) says protecting children's privacy is a moving target as those kids spend exponentially more time online. But he said it is a target that must be hit, including taking on big companies who collect and mine children's data.

Markey has asked the Federal Trade Commission to look into app collection of kids info, for example.

Markey was speaking at a Capitol Hill event Wednesday (Oct. 18) celebrating the 20th anniversary of Markey's Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which was passed Oct. 21, 1998.

The event was sponsored by the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD). Markey said the government should not preempt state laws that protect children's online privacy, which would include California's new privacy law, but should instead produce a children's online privacy protection "constitution" of basic rights.

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The senator said his strategy will be to push for extending COPPA protections to all children under 16 (currently it is under 13) and for an eraser button that allows parents and kids to delete information from their online history (the California bill has such an eraser button).

He said his Do Not Track Kids Act--which he has been pushing for years--must be included in any comprehensive privacy law, or alternately passed as a stand-alone bill. The senator also put in a plug for creating a commission and funding a $95 million research project on the impact of technology on kids and their relationships and well being, including any connection to addiction or suicidal thoughts.

Markey said in 2018 children's clicks are prized commodities for big companies who do not see kids info as out of bounds. He has asked the FTC to investigate the practices of "app developers, advertising companies, and app stores" after a study found that "thousands of apps" were accessing children information, including location, without getting consent.

"A game with animals driving cartoon cars is clearly for children, and it should not be permitted to share kids’ most personal data," he said.

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He said the COPPA anniversary should be used to redouble efforts to protect children in the post-YouTube era where tech insinuates itself into the lives of every child in the country. Kathryn Montgomery former president of the Center for Media Education said the 20 years in the digital culture has been interwoven into child development so the media culture needs to foster engaged and emotionally strong citizens.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said that at a time when people are saying it is virtually impossible to come up with privacy legislation, one of the most important lessons of COPPA is that you can get privacy law passed in the U.S., you can do it on a bipartisan basis, and you can make it meaningful and make a difference in people's lives.

He pointed out that liberal Ed Markey from Massachusetts and conservative Rep. Joe Barton from Texas were able to work together on privacy--Barton was the co-sponsor of the Do Not Track bill.

Rotenbreg said an eraser button should be part of any privacy legislation. He praised CDD for helping make COPPA a success by staying with it and monitoring it. He also suggested that the FTC needs to use more of its authority to enforce existing consent decrees, like that against Facebook, and Google.

Rotenberg said Facebook was getting a passing grade from Price Waterhouse Coopers, which was the third party monitor of its info protection practices per its consent decree with the FTC, but was getting that grade at the same time the Cambridge Analytica inappropriate info sharing was going on.

Angela Campbell, director of the Georgetown Institute for Public Representation, gave a shout out to the late FTC chair Robert Pitofsky (he died Oct. 6), who she said really brought the commission into the kids privacy enforcement ambit. That said, Campbell suggested the FTC has not been a muscular enforcer, which was seconded by Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. He called it a crisis of enforcement. "Google algorithms versus eight-year-olds is not a fair fight," he said.

Golin said that there need to be cross-platform rules against host commercialization. He pointed out that while host selling on TV is against FCC rules, online there are recommendations and "box-opener" video where kids are paid to open toys and talk about how great they are. He said cross-platform kids rules are necessary since the platforms were built for advertisers, not kids.

CDD executive director Jeff Chester said there has been no limit to the info that is being collected and shared because the FTC is afraid to take action. He said legislation is needed to restrict geolocation and other data harvesting practices. Children are being used as guinea pigs by marketers trying to hook them on satisfying instant impulses. He said the public should call out big companies and call on them to stop experimenting on kids.

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