Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., introduced a bill Thursday that would update the decades-old law governing children’s privacy online, an effort bolstered by increased attention on the issue from lawmakers, regulators and kids’ advocates.
The bill, the Protecting the Information of our Vulnerable Children and Youth Act, would expand the existing law to include teenagers under 18 and make the rules apply to all sites that children and teens use. It would prohibit companies from using targeted advertising against kids and teens, and require companies to get consent from teens before collecting their data. Castor introduced a similar bill early last year.
The existing law, Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act or COPPA, was passed in 1998, in the burgeoning days of the internet. The law restricts the tracking and targeting of those younger than 13 in an effort to protect kids’ privacy online.
But COPPA applies only to sites geared toward children, leaving the door open for social media companies to argue that the rules do not apply to them because many require users to be at least 13 years old to sign up.
But even the companies admit that kids younger than 13 are online anyway, probably lying about their age to use social media.
The new bill would also direct the Federal Trade Commission to set up a separate division to focus on youth privacy and marketing, and allow the agency to pursue punitive damages. The FTC eventually concluded a long investigation into Google’s video streaming site YouTube in 2019, which resulted in a $170 million settlement in response to allegations that it illegally collected data about children younger than age 13 who watched toy videos and television shows on YouTube.
Researchers, advocates and some lawmakers have spotlighted what they see as outdated measures or weak protections included in COPPA for years. Also called the Kids PRIVCY Act, Castor’s bill has the support of a list of advocacy organizations that work to protect kids online, including Fairplay, the Center for Digital Democracy, Common Sense Media and more.
“The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act is long overdue for improvements to protect the rights of older teens who spend so much time on mobile and online platforms but who aren’t always savvy enough to protect themselves from deceptive online ads and digital manipulation,” said Linda Sherry, the director of national priorities for advocacy group Consumer Action, in a statement.
Some social media companies have already tried to get ahead of the pressure coming from the federal government by building separate apps for kids under 13, with stricter privacy policies and limited advertising. Facebook’s Messenger Kids, YouTube Kids and Instagram’s product, which is still being developed, are still controversial for parents and advocates. Companies say they are continually working on making their products safe and private for kids.
Instagram announced new policies for its main photo-sharing app this week, saying it would default new accounts for teenagers under 16 into private mode and would limit ad targeting for users under 18.
But the company’s policies might not go far enough for some lawmakers, who highlighted the issues of child safety and young people getting addicted to technology at a recent congressional hearing with Silicon Valley executives in March.
At the hearing, Castor questioned tech executives about their protections for kids online.
“Of course, every parent knows that kids under the age of 13 are on Facebook and Instagram,” Castor said. “The problem is that you know it. And you know that the brain and social development is still evolving at a young age. There are reasons in the law that we said that cutoff is at 13.”
In the Senate, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., one of the original sponsors of COPPA, has proposed a bill this year that would strengthen the law. His COPPA update, co-sponsored by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., would also expand the law to include teens.