Lawmakers endorse updates to children's online privacy law, disagree on broader privacy protections

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Bono Mack argued that some targeted marketing can be positive, such as anti-bullying campaigns.

"All of these issues have another side of the coin," she said.

In particular, she doubted the technical feasibility of the bill's proposed "eraser button," which would allow users to delete information that websites collect.

"You start even dabbling potentially in copyright law [with the eraser button]," she added.

There was little criticism, however, of the FTC's proposed updates to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which gives parents control over what information websites can collect about children under the age of 13.

Among other changes, the FTC last month proposed expanding the definition of personal information to protect geolocation data and online tracking cookies. The proposal would also streamline the parental notice sites must give before collecting minors' information.

Bono Mack said the FTC's proposal hit the "sweet spot," and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said the updates are "appropriate, reasonable, well thought-out and true to the intent of the law."

Mary Koelbel Engle, associate director of the FTC's Division of Advertising Practices, testified that the agency considered raising COPPA's 13-year-old age threshold but ultimately opted to leave it unchanged.

Although more young teenagers are now using social media and other online tools than when the law was first enacted, Engle said many children over the age of 13 would likely just lie about their age or supply their own email address instead of their parents' to access sites.

Whether Congress will add new protections to children over 13 remains unclear. 

"If you don't expand the protections of the law to 13 and 17 year olds explicitly, how do we protect them? Because they are not adults," Barton said. "While they are able to make some decisions on their own, I don't know that they are fully capable of making some of the decisions that would be required." 

Bono Mack noted that regulating teenagers' access to websites raises free-speech issues. 

"At this point in time, I'm not convinced that we need to step in [to add protections for teenagers], but I'm happy to revisit it in the larger privacy context. I think that's where it belongs," Bono Mack said.

Several witnesses said it is in the industry's interest to not violate their customers' trust by gathering data about children.

But Kathryn Montgomery of the American University School of Communication, an early advocate for COPPA, said that if the law had not been enacted, the online marketplace would be very different today.

"It would have been outrageous," she said.