Pointing to harms that can result from the use of online data from children and teens, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. – an architect of early internet privacy laws – is continuing his years-long push for an update to data privacy laws to more comprehensively protect children in today’s digital landscape, and expand provisions of the law to protect all adults if possible.

While technologies like social media and virtual reality (VR) continue to develop and become more profitable, the data privacy laws protecting children – and lack thereof to protect adults – have stayed the same since 1998’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

“You can’t depend upon a corporation, trying to make a lot of money to decide simultaneously, ‘but I want the highest human values in it,’” Sen. Markey said today at the 2022 State of the Net conference.

“We need to enact a new, stronger Privacy Bill of Rights in our country for young people under 16 years old, if that’s the best we can do,” Sen. Markey said. “Now, I think it should be everyone … but if we can’t do that, let’s at least do the children in our country, up to age 16.”

Specifically, Sen. Markey is calling on updated digital privacy laws that expand the coverage of COPPA to children 16 and under; ensure consent is given for data collection for children 13, 14, or 15 years old; ban targeted ads to children, a practice he calls “inherently manipulative”; and create an online eraser button for parents and children to be able to tell companies to delete any data collected on a child user.

Sen. Markey also called for the creation of a Youth Privacy and Marketing Division to be created at the Federal Trade Commission to allow for the monitoring of such practices.

“[The internet] is embedded in kids’ lives,” Sen. Markey said. “It’s a part of who they are. It’s how they play. It’s how they learn. It’s who they are. We have to know that, and we have to know that many of these platforms today have an insatiable appetite for all information about all children in our country. It seeks to hook consumers at a young age the same way the tobacco industry does.”

As one of the architects of the 1996 Telecommunications Act when he was a House member, Sen. Markey said today he was dismayed that a version of a privacy bill of rights he helped author and shepherd through House passage was cut during the conferencing of the bill. He said that pushback from industry eventually led to children under the age of 12 being covered by COPPA, but said the evidence of harm that social media has on children and teenagers requires an update to the law.

Sen. Markey emphasized what he sees as the disconnect between children and teens’ interest and participation in the burgeoning “metaverse,” and the protections currently in place to protect them. Earlier this month, Markey authored a letter to the FTC pushing the agency to use its authority as an agency and under COPPA to protect kids in the VR sector.

“Unfortunately, many VR platforms and headsets do not have basic parental controls, and reports point to harm such as harassment and unsafe content in the metaverse,” he said today. “I’m particularly concerned that VR companies plan to present advertisements in the metaverse that could lead to harmful marketing practices.”

“What we already know about the potential threats to children in a connected virtual ecosystem implores us to be vigilant and to be aggressive in putting the protections in place now before it fully gets off the ground,” he said.

Additionally, Sen. Markey said it’s important to fully study the effects of technology on children and teens.

To that end, he and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., have proposed the Children and Media Research Advancement (CAMERA) Act, which would essentially commission a surgeon’s general report on the effect of technology and media on children and teens. That report would also study any observed effects VR has on teens and children as well.

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Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.