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The "Children's Online Privacy Protection Act"

The "Children's Online Privacy Protection Act"

by David Veksler

One of the main reasons the Internet has been so successful in the last decade is the fierce resistance given in response to meddling politicians who want to protect us from ourselves. Most of the laws that have been passed to regulate the web have either been ruled unconstitutional, or were completely useless and ineffective.
There is one bill however that has been particularly destructive and dishonest – the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998. Most of it was overturned by the Supreme Court, but one of the provisions that remained is TITLE XIII, which requires parental permission to collect personal information from any child under 13 years of age. “Parental permission” means that a parent must submit their personal information, and a verification of their age using something like a valid credit card. Most websites cannot afford to install such a complex verification system – nor can they afford the legal liability if ingenious kids circumvent that system. Neither will the parents of most 13 year olds submit their credit card numbers to an unknown website. In practice, the majority of community websites that require some information for participation simply say “By Federal Law, ALL applicants MUST be 13 years of age or older.”

When faced with such a notice, 99% of kids will simply lie about their age. This is fine for them, but not for the website operators, who are forced to either not collect any information at all, or to ban children from using their website (and hence not be able to market to them.) This is why there are no child-oriented online communities on the web that I’m aware of. There are many child-oriented sites of course, but by “community,” I mean a place where individuals can interact with each other and build online personas – something that requires at least a username and email address. The few websites that can afford to spend millions on the technical and legal challenges necessary for children to register usually ban children from its online forums and communities anyway – encouraging them to lie even when parental consent is possible.

In short, the government’s attempt to “protect” children has wiped out a major market niche, taught children to lie from an early age, and forced them to move their communities to underground IRC channels and general audience sites – exposing them to much more risk then a properly moderated child-oriented site would. It has also set a precedent for online censorship, one that the Supreme Court has mostly rebuffed, but may not do so in the future.

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