Congressional hearings can be an uncomfortable experience for the participants. But at a hearing today on children's online privacy by the Senate subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance, the harshest words were reserved for those who were absent.
Google Inc. and Apple Inc. both declined invitations to participate, though Facebook Inc. and Microsoft Corp. dutifully sent representatives.
"I do not appreciate the fact that Apple and Google are not here,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.), chairman of the Commerce Committee. “Was it too expensive to send an associate legal counsel? They couldn’t afford the plane tickets?”
“I have this power of subpoena that I’d absolutely love to use, but I haven’t yet,” he continued. “It was a stupid mistake for them not to show up, and I say shame on them.”
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who chairs the subcommittee, agreed. “We asked Apple and Google, and they declined,” he said. “It’s unfortunate because they are major players, and we are going to continue to have a long, in-depth conversation in this area.”
The hearing focused on how well the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, is working, and whether Congress should amend the statute. The Federal Trade Commission enforces the law, and is currently reexamining COPPA’s implementation and effectiveness.
Jessica Rich, deputy director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, testified that the agency is considering questions such as whether the definition of the Internet is adequate given the rise of technology such as mobile communications, whether rules about what constitutes personal information should be expanded, and how to authenticate parental consent allowing children to disclose information.
Facebook Director of Public Policy Timothy Sparapani said that the social networking site does not allow users under age 13, but “takes seriously our responsibility to protect and enhance the online safety of our teen users.” This includes features that “substantially reduce the visibility of minors to those they do not know.... Facebook was built with the requirements of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act in mind.”
But he opposed amending the law. “Any amendment might undermine our innovative privacy and safety tools,” he said.
Microsoft Associate General Counsel Mike Hintze also said he did “not believe a legislative amendment was necessary,” though he said Microsoft supported FTC efforts to update the rules. “The FTC should provide clear guidance on the letter and spirit of the law,” he said.
American University Communications Professor Kathryn Montgomery testified that “Recent developments online warrant the attention of the FTC and Congress. Many practices we identified in the 1990s have been eclipsed by a new generation of tracking technology.” For example, cookies and other technology “collect information and design personal advertisements targeting behavior.”
She also said the FTC should develop specific regulations to protect teens, who are not covered under COPPA, which applies to children up to age 13. “I’m not arguing for parental verification, but we need a set of market practices tailored to adolescents," she said.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that the “most obvious, dramatic change” since the passage of COPPA in 1998 is the rise in social networking sites like Facebook.
“Kids live online, exchanging intimate information with their friends,” he said. “But behind the scenes, there is a transfer of data from companies like Facebook to advertisers or third parties that is much more opaque. How do we deal with the collection and use of personal information of teenagers?”
EPIC and other privacy groups filed a complaint with the FTC in December, urging the agency to investigate Facebook’s revised privacy settings. The agency has not confirmed or denied whether an investigation has been launched.
Berin Szoka, Senior Fellow & Director of the Center for Internet Freedom at The Progress & Freedom Foundation, urged Congress not to raise COPPA’s age threshold. “Thirteen is just right,” he said, noting that it’s the age for bar mitzvahs and confirmation and that “Romeo and Juliet were 13."
He also said that it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish sites directed at 13 to 18 year olds, and those for adults.
“It would mean age verification for sites used by many adults...and reduce online privacy because it would require more information to be collected – huge troves of personal information in the name of protecting privacy.”