Online privacy, child safety, free speech and anonymity are on a collision course.  The 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) already mandates certain online privacy protections for children under 13, but many advocate expanding privacy protections for both adolescents and adults.  Furthermore, efforts continue at both the federal and state levels to institute new regulations, such as age verification mandates, aimed keeping kids safer online.  As we argue in a new PFF paper [PDF], there is an inherent tension between these objectives: Attempts to achieve perfectly “safe” online environments will likely require the surrender of some privacy and speech rights, including the right to speak anonymously.

These tensions are coming to a head with state-based efforts to expand COPPA, which requires “verifiable parental consent” before certain sites or services may collect, or enable the sharing of, personal information from children under the age of 13.  Several proposed state laws would extend COPPA’s parental-consent framework to cover all adolescents under 18.  This seemingly small change would require age verification of not only adolescents and their parents, but also—for the first time—large numbers of adults, thus raising grave First Amendment concerns.

Such broad age verification mandates would, ironically, reduce online privacy by requiring more information to be collected from both adolescents and adults for age verification purposes, while doing little to make adolescents safer.  In practical terms, the increased scale of “COPPA 2.0” efforts would present significant implementation and enforcement challenges.

Despite these profound problems, COPPA expansion has great rhetorical appeal and seems likely to be at the heart of future child safety debates—especially efforts to require mandatory age verification and perhaps also next year’s expedited FTC review of COPPA.  Meanwhile, a new congressionally-mandated online child safety task force begins work next week over at the Department of Commerce, and age verification measures could be considered there.

There are, however, many better ways to protect children online than by expanding COPPA beyond its original, limited purpose.  Education and parental empowerment are the more sensible approaches.