More than a few commentators suggest the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 is intended to protect children under 13 from online predators. After all, the word “protection” is rather prominent in the name of the law.
While “COPPA” can provide a small amount of protection against predators, the law has another purpose. Both Congress and the FTC take the position the purpose is to provide parents with control over the collection of information regarding their kids online. It is important to understand this distinction because the intent of the drafters helps clarify why certain FTC regulations exist as well as why other expected requirements seem to be absent.
Are child predators online a serious problem? Yes. There are some very evil people online. Child pornography and sexual abuse are not over-hyped topics. Scumbags target children through chat groups, forums, and social media accounts on a daily basis.
There are numerous state and federal criminal laws designed to prosecute child predators. There should probably be more. COPPA is not one of these laws. COPPA is a law prosecuted in civil court. The law calls for monetary damages, not prison sentences. COPPA is not intended to stop child predators, and an example can show why.
Let’s assume Mr. Smith is a child predator and decides to open a website directed at kids under 13 years old. He decides on a game site called “SmithsGames4Kids.com.” Once the site is up, he follows all the COPPA compliance steps and obtains verified parental consent to collect personal information from the children on the site. Mr. Smith turns out to be a predator who uses the personal information to entice kids to meet with him offline.
Can COPPA be used to prosecute and put Mr. Smith in jail? No. There is no criminal component to the law. There is a chance the FTC could pursue Mr. Smith for making misrepresentations regarding the use of information collected from kids on the site, but it would be a reach.
Shouldn’t the parents know who they are giving consent to? It is an interesting notion, but ask yourself a simple question. Of all the times you’ve provided personal information to a site or online service over the last ten years, how many times did you know anything about the owner of the website? The answer for most people is simple – never.
Before you become enraged and think Mr. Smith may “get away with it,” understand he will be prosecuted criminally under numerous other federal and state laws. COPPA is simply not one of those laws.
Is COPPA useless when it comes to deterring child predators? Not at all. One of the interesting aspects of the law is that online operators of a website directed at children under 13 must obtain information from all the individuals wishing to join the site. Most predators are going to be very hesitant to leave a record of their identity. This alone acts as a deterrent.
Does COPPA stop child predators cold online? No. COPPA was never intended to do so. There are plenty of other federal and state laws prosecutors can use to put such scumbags behind bars.
Richard A. Chapo, Esq.