Industry, lawmakers clash over robust changes to COPPA

Industry leaders cautioned federal lawmakers during a hearing Thursday not to seek too drastic changes to long-standing rules that govern how websites safeguard children's privacy.

While both Microsoft and Facebook argue that recent technological advances, including the rise of the mobile Web, necessitate new protections for children under 13, they signaled that aggressive changes to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) would harm innovation and perhaps even the law's original intent.

However, those companies' calls for only modest COPPA changes seemed to contrast greatly with statements from the Senate Commerce Committee's top Democrats, who signaled on Thursday they hoped to beef up COPPA's mandate.

Popular mobile Web tools -- including GPS technology and ads that target smartphone users, including teens, based on their preferences -- may have stretched COPPA  to its limit, according to consumer protection subcommittee Chairman Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). His concerns echoed those posed recently by the Federal Trade Commission, which announced last month it would review the COPPA rule to determine whether any such changes are necessary.

A representative from Facebook, however, told the committee that an overhaul of COPPA could backfire on "companies like ours that are trying to do the right thing," adding that Facebook was built with COPPA in  mind. Microsoft, meanwhile, said it did not believe "legislative amendment is necessary at this time," noting the Federal Trade Commission could clarify existing law on its own.

But that only invoked the ire of full committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who questioned whether self-regulation could truly protect children in an era in which technology poses new privacy challenges for all.

"I have this odd feeling about this panel... it's like we're discussing some kind of breakfast cereal, whether it's good for you or not, and children have already disappeared from this process," Rockefeller said tersely.

"Both you and you," he continued, referring to Facebook and Microsoft, "have good things to say, but you ultimately ended up saying we'll do this by ourselves, and we don't need the government to tell us what to do."

Ultimately, Microsoft's Michael D. Hintze, associate general counsel, later clarified to say he was not advocating exclusively for self-regulation. Facebook's Timothy Sparapani, director of Public Policy, also elaborated that his remarks mostly focused on the law's effects on innovation, which he said a COPPA expansion could stifle.

Still, Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) seemed to rise to both companies' defense.

"I appreciate the chair's willingness to get into the weeds on this, but I think the testimony of all of our panelists have been helpful," he said. "And do thing there is a way to, there must be a way, to have it both ways -- to encourage innovation and to protect privacy of children's information at the same time."