COPPA, Facebook, and Users Under 13

My latest commentary at is up, revisiting the online age verification and the related controversy over Facebook’s suggestion about allowing children under 13 to sign-up, perhaps on a partitioned site created especially for “‘tweens.”

As I write in the commentary, The Children Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) sets out specific rules and regulations about how websites can gather and use information about children, with the threat of legal penalties behind them. Facebook, for one, finds these rules so cumbersome that, under its terms of service, children under 13 are not permitted to sign up. If it determines that a user is under 13, Facebook will delete the page. Furthermore, if the Federal Trade Commission determines Facebook is not doing enough to enforce its policy, the company may face considerable fines.

The trouble is, there really is no effective way of verifying age online. It doesn’t help Facebook that a recent report by a team lead by danah boyd, senior researcher at Microsoft and a research assistant director in the Media, Culture and Communication Department at New York University, estimates that 7.5 million Facebook users are under 13, despite its terms of use. At the same time, it doesn’t help the FTC’s case that the same research found that 55 percent of parents of 12-year-olds know their children have Facebook accounts and that 70 percent of those kids had assistance from a parent in setting up their page. (Boyd discusses her research in this Surprisingly Free podcast from the Mercatus Center.)

To gain some clarity, let’s remember that COPPA is aimed at privacy protection. Its motivations stem from concerns over corporate marketing to children, as well as child predation and cyberbullying, which all rank as parental hot buttons when it comes to their kids’ activities online. While the age verification law may have been a response to these concerns, it must also be weighed against the fact that many parents are actively helping their tweens get online. Overall it points to the reality that parents still consider themselves the best and most effective filter for monitoring children’s on-line habits.

It’s time for lawmakers to admit the ineffectiveness of online age restriction. Social networks are virtual meeting places, just like any real-word public place where kids and adults congregate in groups, be it a shopping mall or public park. By and large, we expect teens and tweens on their own will be safe in these venues, although we do educate them to identify and counteract potential threats. So it must be the case on-line. Arbitrary federal law cannot be a substitute for parental involvement supported by schools, camps and other awareness programs at the local level.

Read the full piece here.