So I have a reputation as somewhat of a COPPA compliance warrior – so much so that my co-workers have been known to groan when I mention registration or database needs. It’s an odd thing to have attributed to you, especially with no legal experience SLASH a general frustration with legal risk aversion in general. But when you have been working on kids websites and communities for coming up on 15 years, you kinda get a hang for the ins and outs of the laws that surround it (or at least you SHOULD).
That’s the thing. COPPA is required. It’s not a choice. You have to comply. If you don’t, you get in trouble – like super expensive trouble – in dollars and negative PR. So you just do it. I always find it odd when people brag about it or add it as a tagline to their branding. It’s akin to saying – “My name’s Harry and just so you know, I definitely DON’T punch random strangers in the face.” Duh, Harry, but thanks for letting me know.
But COPPA compliance has become alot like speeding on the highway. Many people obey the speed limit, but many more edge a bit over the line. When they see a cop, they pull back and pretend that 55 is totes what they were driving the whole time. But then they inch back up to 65 or 70 the second they are in the clear. I’ve heard some people actually see a speeding ticket every now and then as a valid cost of driving – a tax they are willing to budget for.
Much the same, companies have started inching over the compliance line on COPPA. I actually have been in meetings with kids brand execs (NOT my current ones 😉 ) that considered having a slush fund set aside in case their was a sanction levied against them. But even Pollyanna-well-intentioned brands sometimes find themselves inching toward or even over the COPPA line. You know why? Because it’s SUPER hard to comply to in the internet/digital culture that we are in right now.
COPPA was put in place to protect kiddos from nefarious marketers who wanted to sell personal info. It was not for predators or decency or to teach personal accountability in identity protection. But, with our culture of fear, those are the things that people think it’s in place for.
Is it good that a byproduct of this rather draconian law imposed on site operators so they don’t profit from the sale of kids info, ALSO helps prevent kids from distributing personal details about themselves in public forums? Maybe – but I’m not sure that that remote and avoidable byproduct outweighs the other hurdles the law imposes.
You see, the whole thing is predicated on parents being super engaged in their children’s online lives. Ask a parent about this and they will undoubtedly say:
“YES! Of course, I want to know what is going on with my child online AND to help them make good decisions accordingly! I am an amazing parent!”
This is evidenced in tons of surveys. But do those surveys follow up with the parent (and I mean REALLY follow up – not just ask the parent in another survey) with a
“Ok, parent, but do you REALLY? Are you ACTUALLY the super engaged parent you painted yourself to be?”
Chances are, if that followup actually happened, the answer would be dodged with an excuse about lack of time or understanding, lament of the speed of tech advancements or a bold faced lie.
Truth is that, anecdotally (albeit with my use-cases in the thousands), parents don’t know about COPPA and their assumed required involvement. So we can demand verified parental consent til the cows come home, but if the parents don’t understand that is something that is needed, all the FTC is protecting is a child’s ingenuity to lie about their age, while simultaneously making it harder for an an ethical site operators to pay their staff while providing good content for kids.
Unless these impositions on the site operators are coupled with a robust (and effective) campaign to explain to parents WHY and HOW they need to be involved, COPPA is simply discouraging smaller brands away from quality content from kids, encouraging children and parents to learn truth-dodging techniques in registrations and forcing the nefarious operators deeper into the shadows to avoid detection. Only bigger brands can afford the legal counsel needed to check that they are in the right. The ones who can’t afford will simply not offer the content, or worse, slap a “over 13” stamp on it and skirt their responsibility.
The internet is based on communication channels – especially in the age of social media that is now the norm. By starting from the false axiom of parental involvement and prohibiting use of the now standard means of communication until this involvement is verified, you are setting up either a web of lies OR limiting our next generations ability to learn how to use these channels correctly. Both are horrible choices.
And don’t even get me started on how most of the mobile rules don’t even have a path to compliance…
Instead, we should flip the paradigm:
- For the operators – we make the compliance voluntary and, therefore, honestly brag worthy. Make it like shopping on a secure site – you get the security so that your customers feel safe. If you don’t have that seal or badge or OK from the FTC, parents/kids would think twice before using their site.
- For parents – we give them back their parenting responsibilities. If they think their child shouldn’t be giving out info online, the parents should be punishing the children for breaking their house rules, not blaming the sites for making it too easy for their child to give out info. And we should be helping parents understand this and how to do this – not assuming they are already there.
- For kids – we teach them media awareness, basic stranger/danger skills and critical thinking. If they aren’t ready for it – their parents shouldn’t be letting them use those sites – whether they are 8, 12, 15 or 17 years old.
I am not naive, I know this isn’t going to happen this year or even next. But I am optimistic as to this happening at some point. Until then, I will remain the compliance warrior, marching and marching on. But I have 10 million+ kids and parents on my compliant site – so you better believe I’m gonna start the first steps toward a more rational model now.