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Coalition Calls for Modernizing COPPA

A coalition of child health, consumer, and privacy advocates submitted formal documents to the Federal Trade Commission last week recommending modernizations to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, which essentially restricts websites from collecting data on children under 13 without parental consent.

Suggestions include using criteria the FTC developed in 2008 for food marketing to clarify the definition of sites and content "directed at children," updating the definition of "personal information" to reflect how Web addresses, geographic location data, and even age and zip code can be used to target young online users, and creating a separate set of privacy protections for children 13 and older.

Protections for older adolescents, said the coalition in a release, should not include the parental consent model used in the current law that protects younger children.

It's unclear the effect the proposed reforms would have on online or blended learning programs. Most online education programs have pretty rigid parental consent stipulations already, but commercial vendors who provide online content or services to school districts may have to make revisions to their products to align with COPPA standards. For example, in a story I wrote about districts that were paying to equip school buses with WiFi Internet, one company that wired buses had to create an Internet filtering system to comply with COPPA standards.

Nobody is questioning the spirit of the COPPA. But in cyberspace terms, the law passed in 1998 and enacted in 2000 is ancient. When it was finally enacted, we were still four years away from Facebook and six from Twitter. And using phone services to connect to the Internet meant hooking your computer to a land line and a dial-up modem, not exploring the Web from a mobile device.

The FTC had already launched a review of the rules this spring, "in light of the rapidly evolving technology and changes in the way children use and access the Internet." After a recent extension of the review period, it is scheduled to end next Monday.

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