While most lawmakers agree that businesses should be required to follow special rules when dealing with children’s personal information online, a House Energy and Commerce panel was more divided during a Wednesday hearing over whether Congress needs to craft special protections for teens.
Last month, the Federal Trade Commission issued proposed changes to its rules implementing the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, which requires websites aimed at children under age 13 to get a parent’s permission before collecting, using, or disclosing kids’ personal information.
Among the changes the FTC is proposing are revisions to the definition of “personal information” to include geo-location data and persistent identifiers such as online tracking cookies. Some companies use these cookies to collect information to target ads to Web-surfers.
“Having reviewed these changes carefully, I think the FTC has—as I often say—hit the ‘sweet spot,’ ” Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade Subcommittee Chairwoman Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., said during a hearing on the agency’s proposed COPPA changes.
The FTC rejected suggestions that it recommend COPPA be extended to include teens ages 13 to 17. Instead, the FTC said it would consider including suggestions on ways to better protect teens online as part its final report on online consumer privacy to be released later this year.
While some privacy advocates agree that COPPA should not be extended to cover teenagers, they say Congress should provide special protections for teens as part of broader privacy legislation.
Reps. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Ed Markey, D-Mass., both senior members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, have proposed legislation that would bar websites from tracking children as they surf the Internet.
The measure also would limit the collection of personal information from teens and require businesses to provide an “eraser” mechanism allowing teens to eliminate, when feasible, publicly available personal information about themselves on social-networking sites and other places online.
“The reality is teens need something more than they have right now,” said Alan Simpson, vice president of policy for the nonprofit advocacy group Common Sense Media. “The FTC recommendations are very valuable for kids under 13. But there are a lot of 13- and 14- and 15-year-olds who are quite capable of making mistakes in this innovative space and those mistakes can come back to haunt them.”
Bono Mack questioned the feasibility of Barton and Markey’s proposal, particularly the idea of an “eraser” mechanism. Both Simpson and American University communications professor Kathryn Montgomery, who helped push for the original COPPA law, also questioned how such an eraser mechanism would work but said that teens need more control over their personal information and need to know more about how to protect themselves online.
“We don’t know how it will work. But we’ve seen a lot of innovation on how to collect [personal data] and not enough innovation on how to protect,” Simpson added.
Bono Mack said she had no plans to hold a hearing on the Barton-Markey bill and did not see the need for Congress to step in with privacy legislation targeting teens. However, she said she would include teen privacy in the panel’s broader examination of online privacy, which will continue next week with a fourth hearing on the issue.
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