The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act has what appears to be a simple purpose – protect the personal information of kids online. This simplicity is lost when one tries to apply the requirements of the law to the practicalities of how people act whether as kids or adults. For example, how should online businesses address the issue of kids lying about their age when accessing a website, app or other online service?
One of the interesting things about COPPA is how some of the underlying assumptions regarding the need for the law run face first into the practical aspects of the real world. On one hand, the drafters of the law set out to protect children from predators and big bad companies who might track them online, to wit, the “who will save the children” theme. On the other hand, any online operator or parent can tell you the average 11 year old is rather savvy and will often lie to get what he or she wants including access to a website.
These opposing facts leave the FTC and online operators in a tough position. How does one account for kids lying about their age when trying to access a site or app? Although we are often critical of the FTC, the agency has taken a prudent position on this issue.
The FTC divides online platforms into two categories – sites “directed at kids” and general audience sites kids might access. The “lying” issue is handled differently for each type of site.
Directed At Children
The issue of lying is simple to address when the online platform is an app or website directed at children under the age of 13. Such platforms must obtain verified parental consent from the parents of every person accessing the platform, so whether a child lies about their age becomes irrelevant. In fact, there is little reason for the online platform to even ask any age questions since each and every individual seeking to access the site, app or service must go through the verified parental consent process.
How to deal with kids lying about their age becomes a more difficult topic to address for general audience websites. With such sites, there is no duty to actual screen for underage kids. Most sites, however, do so in an effort to keep young children from accessing their content and disclosing information parents would be unhappy about to say the least.
But what about kids that lie about their age? It only takes one rejection from a site for a child to realize they need to pick a year indicating they are over 13 years old when registering to avoid rejection. How can an online operator possibly police this issue? It can’t and the FTC recognizes as much.
The FTC issued a new COPPA Rule in 2013. In discussing the new provision, the agency addressed the issue of children lying about their age to get through age gate systems. The FTC takes the position the site can rely on the age given by individuals when registering even if the information provided is false.
What happens if the online operator subsequently becomes aware a child under 13 has in fact lied and joined the site? In this scenario, the online operator has actual knowledge of the child being underage and must immediately comply with COPPA and the COPPA Rule. This responsibility is not trumped by the age information the child provided when originally signing up for an account.
In the immortal words of Dr. House on the television show House M.D. – “everyone lies.” While we like to think kids under 13 will never tell fibs, the reality is they do.
As an operator of a website, app or other online service, your first step to dealing with the lying issue is to have your site, app or service evaluated by a legal professional to determine if it is a general audience or child-directed property. Only then can you know the specific COPPA compliance steps you are required to take under COPPA. Contact us today to get started with the evaluation.