Who could possibly be against protecting kids on the Internet? In particular, kids' privacy should be protected and parents should be given the right to delete stuff their errant teens have mistakenly posted about themselves. Minors shouldn't be tracked online and voracious cookies should stop sucking up the virtual bread crumbs our kids leave behind all over the web. And there should be a ban on sites marketing their products to our teens. There ought to be a law!
Well, that's the well-intentioned line Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Tex.) have taken in their Do Not Track Kids Act, which aims to update and expand the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998. It was also the line of questioning posed to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, FTC Commissioner Edith Ramirez and NTIA Administrator Larry Strickling at a recent Congressional hearing on the topic. It's not that hard to create a bi-partisan consensus that our kids need special protection online. The devil, however, is in the detail.
For the past thirteen years, websites collecting information about kids under 13 have had to be COPPA compliant. A number of organizations have emerged to provide COPPA Safe Harbors in order for companies operating sites targeted at kids to do so legitimately and in full compliance with the law. Last year, the FTC announced a review of COPPA which is due out "shortly." The Do Not Track Kids Act attempts to amend what Markey describes as a bill that was created "BF" -- or Before Facebook. In other words, to update legislation that is behind the times and simply does not address a world of social networking, Twitter and YouTube.
However, there is a world of difference between, say, a 7-year-old surfing for Smurfs and a 17-year-old browsing a prospective college. Both are, in legal terms, minors and both would be swept up in the broad reach of this Act. In the case of my 15-year-old daughter, she would need my verifiable consent if she wanted to sign up for, say, Google+ or to receive updates on the sales at Forever 21. And what if my wife disagreed? Would both parents have to give their permission before their child accesses and signs up for a site that may or may not intend to "market" their services to them? What about step-families? How will parental consent work in those cases? And what about families where a parent is an abuser or neglectful? Will we deny our teens access to legitimate information that would provide them help or much-needed assistance because their parent won't give them permission?
Another strange element to the DTK Act is the proposal for a so-called "Eraser Button." Of course, it is a very attractive idea in that it is simple and easy to talk about. Who wouldn't want a quick and painless way to wave away any misguided posting or photo that we or our kids let slip out there? Wouldn't it be wonderful to go in and just rub out Johnny's ill-advised photo spread from last night's prom? To save Tina from herself when she's uploaded those Spring Break shots from Miami Beach just before applying to Yale?
What's much harder to do is to conceptualize and realize this in practice. The web is not like a piece of paper. The eraser was invented to correct mistakes made (in pencil, not permanent ink) on paper. Digital markings are easily reproduced, spread, hacked or disseminated in countless ways at lightning speed. Paper exists in the physical world. Facebook posts, YouTube videos and tweets reside in the cloud, or, more accurately, clouds. This makes the concept of a simple button for all digital misdoings nonsensical.
Even more problematic is the idea of a Congressionally-mandated technological solution. Admittedly, the framers of this legislation leave the creation and implementation up to the "industry." Assuming we know exactly who or what constitutes this group, there will have to be well defined guidelines as to what is and is not acceptable as an "eraser" under this proposed law. Technological mandates have a bad habit of misfiring -- often squelching innovation in the very space that law makers want solutions to emerge. Just think of the V-chip.
So if not this, then what? Genachowski did a good job in deflecting questions about his support for the Act by emphasizing the empowerment of parents and the use of existing parental controls and privacy settings. Strickling agreed with the principle, but flatly said we shouldn't be in the business of dictating tech solutions. The FTC's Ramirez wouldn't commit either way.
Rather than expand COPPA to sweep up the 13- to 17-year-olds and instead of a quixotic adventure to devise an ill-defined "button," let's double down on what already exists in the way of protection and education. Let's urge social networking sites to make their delete functions more visible and easy to understand. Let's teach our kids about the unwise choices they may make online and work with them to limit the information they so freely and naively give away. And let's reach this generation of parents and give them the tools and information they so clearly need to guide their children through this unsettling, yet ultimately rewarding, digital age.
Markey says this is not about Big Brother. Instead it's Big Mother and Big Father. I'd prefer to see empowered parents and resilient kids making wise choices about the content they access and post, their conduct online and who they contact and who they allow to contact them. This would push my buttons, in a good way.