Advancing a Free Society

Privacy Victims by the Billion: Law Turns Parents and Children into Liars … and Criminals?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A recent report by Danah Boyd and others reveals that turning parents and children into liars is a principal effect of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA.  According to Consumer Reports, 7.5 million kids under 13 have joined Facebook. Since Facebook prohibits kids of that age from the service, that’s 7.5 million children who lied in the signup process.  And most of them got help in telling the lie from their parents.  According to Boyd’s study, the vast majority of parents were aware that their children joined Facebook before reaching 13; in fact, more than two-thirds of these parents helped their under-age kids join.

That’s a lot of lying.

COPPA more or less forces Facebook into excluding thirteen-year-olds.  The law and the FTC regs implementing it set stringent limits on the kinds of information that web services can collect from kids under 13 in the absence of “verifiable parental consent.” Obtaining verifiable consent requires mail, fax, phone calls, or credit card numbers; email is allowed only if accompanied by a cryptographically secure digital signature. It is quite deliberately a hassle.  And once the consent is received, the service is charged with knowledge that the customer is a child, which triggers special legal protections and limits, not to mention FTC and state attorney general oversight.

All in all, unless you’re running a site focused exclusively on preteens, you’d be crazy to let them join.  Facebook isn’t crazy.  It excludes children.  But staying off Facebook isn’t really an option for kids with a social life, or grandparents for that matter. So the real effect of the law and Facebook’s policy is to force children and their parents to lie about the child’s age.

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