Two decades after Congress tried to wall off the worst of the Internet to protect the privacy and innocence of children, sex, drugs, violence, hate speech, conspiracy theories and blunt talk about suicide are a few clicks away. Even when children view benign content, they face aggressive data collection that allows tech companies to gather names, locations and interests of young users. Federal efforts to thwart these threats have been weakened by court rulings, uneven enforcement and the relentless pace of technological change, reports the Washington Post. Surveys show that four out of five preteens use some form of social media, even though YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat officially prohibit users under 13. The 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) restricts the tracking and targeting of those under 13 but requires “actual knowledge” of a user’s age as a key trigger to enforcement.
Consumer and privacy advocates allege widespread COPPA violations by leading technology companies. Even when authorities take action, penalties typically come years after the violations began and make little dent in corporate profits. “We’ve got a crisis of enforcement,” said Josh Golin of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. “Right now we are incentivizing companies to not know that children are on their sites.” Safeguards by industry, which argues that self-regulation is an effective alternative to government’s heavy hand, have proved weak. Pornography and sites celebrating drug, tobacco and alcohol consumption can be seen by underage users who enter fake birth dates or tap online buttons that allow them to claim to be adults. “There has been a complete and utter failure to protect children in this entire society by the Washington infrastructure,” said James Steyer of Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based group pushing for new measures to make the Internet safer for children.