The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was passed by Congress as part of the Omnibus spending bill in 1998. It took effect in April 2000. Before passage, COPPA received one hearing in the Senate and no separate consideration in the House.
COPPA requires “verifiable parental consent” before a commercial website operator may collect information like e-mail addresses from children. For the internal use of the website, this means getting an e-mail from the parent. For other uses, this means talking to a parent, or getting a parent’s snail mail, fax, or credit card number.
The premise of the bill is politically bullet-proof: We must protect children.
The details are more tricky: Protect them from what?
Congress passed this law in the absence of evidence that collection of information by commercial websites harms children in any way. In fact, commercial websites pose little danger to children because they stay in business by making children and their parents comfortable and safe. The next best reason for the law is the idea that marketing to children somehow harms them. If this is the case, television is the monsterous threat, not the Internet.
Yet the COPPA law singled out the Internet for special regulation. This raised the cost of serving children online by $50,000 to $100,000 dollars per website, with additional per-child costs as well. On the Internet, which is driven by diversity and small business innovation, this is a lot. It means that new ways of teaching children will not develop and competition for serving children will be thwarted. Instead, dominant Internet companies will capture the children’s market.
More importantly, many children will lose access to valuable educational content and healthy online interaction. These will tend to be the children of poor, non-English speaking, or absentee parents. Other children will learn that lying about their ages gives them access to worlds that other children enjoy. Either way, COPPA shows again that their is no substitute for parenting, online or off.
Disney: The Mouse That Won’t Roar by Ben Charny, ZDNet News (October 11, 2000)
Internet Sites for Children Say New Law Hurting Business San Jose Mercury (AP) (September 13, 2000)
Privacy, Microsoft, and the Feds: This Recipe for Disaster Just Got Us a Little Steamed by Stuart McClure and Joel Scambray, InfoWorld.com (May 19, 2000)
Internet Privacy Law Costs a Bundle by Carolyn Duffy Marsan, Network World (May 16, 2000)
Cybersitters Report for Assigned Duties by Sonia Arrison, Washington Times (May 6, 2000)
The Hidden Costs of Online Privacy by James W. Harper, Tech Central Station (March 27, 2000)