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There's always a lot of hullaballoo about protecting children's safety and privacy online. There's a lot of hand-wringing and a lot of smoke-and-mirrors and when things go awry, a lot of blame.

There are a couple of pieces of legislation that dictate the steps schools, libraries and businesses must take in order to protect children.

Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) This 1998 law prevents companies from collecting personal information from those under the age of 13. Although ostensibly a law about privacy, danah boyd notes in a recent blog post that there's a real misconception about the law. She contends that parents see the "no one under 13" warning and assume that this is an assessment about whether or not the site is suitable for children. In fact, the label has nothing to do with security or safety. Moreoever, parents are prone to (inadvertently or not) teach their kids how to lie to bypass these age restrictions - not a great lesson in digital citizenship. boyd also notes that there's a real danger in requiring sites to seek parental approval, particularly when it comes to information and resources to help kids at risk.

Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA): Proposed by Senator McCain, signed into law in 2000 by President Clinton, this law is meant to prevent children's exposure to pornography and explicit content, which is awesome right up to the part where someone else's morals decide what is and isn't acceptable. CIPA dictates that schools and libraries receiving federal e-rate dollars must filter their Internet. I'm not a fan of filters. I don't like being told what I can and cannot read, and I'd like to extend that right to free inquiry to our children. When I wrote this week about Google's new Secure Search running afoul of filters, my intent I should say was not to reinforce Total Information Control on schools. I mean, schools and libraries that take federal funding have to filter (boo). They're not info despots (necessarily). What drew me to the story about Secure-Search-versus-CIPA was that 1) it demonstrated how the tech industry innovates without thought of some of the practical repercussions for schools and government institutions and 2) the story pointed to a hypocrisy for techies: we embrace freedom, open internet, open access for everyone, except kids - and folks who have to use public libraries.

When I wrote my story on Google Secure Search, someone commented that perhaps it was time to change CIPA. Indeed, both CIPA and COPPA are over a decade old, and no longer represent the realities of kids in a digital world. boyd's post on COPPA ends with a call to action, one that I'd suggest could be extended beyond just a discussion of kids' online privacy: "It's time that parents and educators learned more about COPPA and start sharing their own perspective, asking Congress to do a better job of addressing the privacy issues without taking away their rights to parent and educate. And without marginalizing those who aren't fortunate enough to have engaged parents by their side."

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Audrey Watters


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