President Biden’s State of the Union address referenced only a few digital technology issues, so when he specifically called for protecting children’s privacy, it stood out. That is a laudable and appealing goal, especially because Frances Haugen’s disclosures about Facebook’s practices and other evidence demonstrated that social media platforms have been damaging to children’s physical and mental health.
Protecting children’s privacy is particularly important because children are less able to understand the difference between advertising and editorial content, and tracking children’s habits and location, or other aspects of children’s lives seems wrong. Congress enacted the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in 1998 to help address those emerging issues in the early stages of the commercial internet. President Biden’s renewed push on this issue is further acknowledgement that protecting children’s privacy is important.
That said, for years now the focus of the privacy conversation has been on comprehensive privacy and civil rights protections, particularly since the EU passed the General Data Protection Regulation in 2016 and the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018. Instead of focusing the privacy conversation only on children, we should work together to pass comprehensive privacy legislation that includes children’s privacy protections by the end of this year.
We need legislation that moves beyond a “notice and consent” model, implements data minimization, and protects against discriminatory uses of data for everyone, children included. There are many proposals in Congress from lawmakers that seek to address these issues. Three states have passed general privacy laws, and many others are considering them. The FTC is poised to start a privacy proceeding any day now, and the NTIA has been studying privacy and civil rights since at least last year. Civil society and industry have also been working on these issues intently, with model frameworks from CDT, Free Press/Lawyers’ Committee, and Intel, with Consumer Reports crafting a model state bill. Specifically, CDT’s discussion draft from 2018 (and the Free Press/Lawyers’ Committee bill) proposed that disclosing to third parties personal information collected from children, or using children’s information to target them with advertising, should be unlawful. But that’s just one proposal.
Let’s make President Biden’s emphasis on children’s privacy the kickstart needed to finally pass comprehensive federal privacy and civil rights legislation.