This week, changes to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, known as COPPA, went into effect. Many organizations failed to comport with the standards outlined in COPPA prior to July 1, 2013, and now is the time for organizations, web platforms, application developers and anyone dealing with the personal information of children online, to begin respecting the rights of children when it comes to how they are dealt with online. While COPPA may be viewed by the private sector as another set of "rules" that must be complied with, we should consider what such regulation represents.
As a society, we have decided that children are part of a protected class. This decision, in many areas under the law, comes after protracted conversations about the constitutionality of certain measures and the role of government. In the case of children's activity online, we have made a decision to codify rules that companies who wish to interact with children online must abide by.
Children under 12 do not have a voice at the table when it comes to their privacy (arguably, anyone under 18 lacks the same). They are interacting online in a context, which is that of play. The Internet is an amazing place for an adult to learn, explore and interact. I can only imagine what it must look like through the lens of a child. It is much easier to tell a child what the "Don'ts" are in the offline world, such as the "Don't talk to strangers" that many of us grew up with, than in the online world. And we know that even offline, sometimes children do not always do what they are told, often times because they do not have the capacity to truly recognize the consequences of their actions.
It is lazy to assume that "privacy is dead" when it comes to protecting the rights of a generation that has yet to form any opinions on the matter. This is the first generation to grow up with every moment of their lives online. People's need to lifecast is not exclusive to themselves. Every moment of their child's life also becomes permanently archived online and not by the child's own volition. I can only imagine if that photo of me in my Snoopy sunglasses reading a Richard Scarry book upon the training potty had been immediately blast out on the Internet, specifically if my parents did not understand the privacy settings of the social network they were using. You cringe when someone tells an embarrassing story about you; it is another thing to have it permanently memorialized. I hope all parents are familiar with the concept of archiving. I would encourage you to check out the Wayback Machine.
Likely, one of two things will happen 10-15 years from now when this generation starts to come of age: 1) They will be so used to their lives being exposed online that they will not be phased by increased transparency, or 2) they will make an about-face and embrace privacy, being zealous about online reputation management. I am willing to bet the inability for children to grow up "off the grid" in any meaningful manner will shift how they proceed online when they have the capacity, legal and otherwise, to make those decisions for themselves.
If you are concerned about privacy and reclaiming our privacy rights, an appropriate place to start is for those who need to be most protected. If we teach our children that their privacy is important and empower regulatory bodies to protect their information, we may help to change the way our society handles privacy for generations to come.