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Proposed Federal Privacy Laws Could Affect Schools

Congress is considering two proposed laws governing Internet use — one prohibiting companies from collecting data on youth without their consent, and another requiring social media to have parental controls.

Closeup of a finger hovering over a button on a smartphone that says "read the privacy policy."
Two pieces of bipartisan federal legislation aimed at protecting children’s online privacy could become hot topics of debate in the weeks ahead as K-12 schools resume for the 2023-2024 academic year.

The updated Children and Teens’ Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA 2.0) and the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) both passed the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee late last month and are expected to remain on the legislative agenda when Congress returns from its summer break in September.

COPPA 2.0, an update of the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, would prohibit Internet companies from collecting information on users who are under the age of 16 without the user’s consent, whereas the original version of the law established the age of consent as 13. It also bans targeted advertising to children and teenagers on the Internet.

KOSA requires covered platforms like social media sites to provide controls that allow parents to supervise their children’s activity and restrict access to minors’ personal data. The companies that own those platforms must also disclose to states and the Federal Trade Commission their data pertaining to targeted advertising and personalized recommendation systems, according to the bill.

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit advocacy group for children and families, applauded both proposed laws, calling them a “big step forward for the mental health and overall well-being of kids and their families.”

“These two pieces of legislation are top priorities for Americans across the country, for Common Sense Media, and for so many other important organizations because they are making up for lost time,” James Steyer, founder and CEO of the organization, said in a public statement last month. “It has been a whopping 25 years since COPPA was originally enacted, and the law hasn’t changed since, despite the incredible evolution of technology and the now-enormous role that it plays in our society.”

Steyer added that he believes both laws prioritize online safety for children, hold social media platforms accountable for how they impact youth, and “bring tech policy into the 21st century.”

“We look forward to seeing these bills on the Senate floor later this year so that all senators can join together to make the Internet healthier and safer for America’s children,” Steyer’s statement read.

Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel for NetChoice, an agency that advocates for free expression and free enterprise on the Internet, said while there appears to be bipartisan support for both laws, he thinks most members of Congress would vote against them because of “constitutional quandaries” and other issues.

Szabo called COPPA 2.0 “disingenuous,” because the original intent of the law was to protect children from online predators, not advertisers. He also said requiring social media platforms to share data with departments of state and federal governments for the purpose of compliance should also be considered a privacy concern.

“In order to age-gate users, you are still doing a large data-security collection,” he said.

Szabo noted that people browsing the Internet should be afforded the same level of privacy as when leafing through the pages of a library book or looking at clothing or goods before proceeding to the checkout counter.

“It allows you to learn,” he said, “and that anonymity is supposed to be protected.”

Szabo said his organization agrees in principle that some actions are necessary to protect children from harmful online content. He supports social media awareness curricula and any programs that encourage teachers, students and parents to discuss safe and responsible Internet use, but he thinks those conversations should only take place at the local level.

“This isn’t something that should be handed to the government or Silicon Valley,” he said. “Let’s teach the youth, let’s teach the parents how to engage in it. It’s not something that should be done at the macro level.”
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.