Hearing on Kids’ Privacy Turns Into Bipartisan Cuddle Session

Republicans, Democrats actually agree with each other

Here's something you rarely see in Congress these days: a love fest. 

At a Wednesday hearing of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade Subcommittee, which was discussing "Protecting Children's Privacy in an Electronic World," no bombs were thrown and no barbs were traded. Members treaded lightly—no Congressman wants to be seen as favoring the easily demonized Internet over children. As Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, tweeted, "Everyone is trying to outdo each other in terms of how much they love the children. It's like a Whitney Houston song in here."

The hearing was called to evaluate the privacy protections under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, and to ask whether updates to the rules proposed recently by the Federal Trade Commission are necessary to improve the current regime. 

"We can show strong bipartisan support," for the FTC's proposals, Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C. the ranking member of the subcommittee, said, agreeing with his Republican counterpart, Rep. Mary Bono Mack of California, who said the FTC had hit the "sweet spot" on its updates to the rules.

Since COPPA was passed in 1998, the FTC has brought 17 cases and collected $6.2 million in civil penalties, noted Mary Engle, the associate director of the FTC's Division of Advertising Practices, who was one of the witnesses at the hearing. The FTC's proposed updates to COPPA, which it unveiled last month, would, for instance, expand the definition of personally identifiable information that can not be collected to include geolocation data. Comments on the updates are due Nov. 28.

At the end of the hearing, members discussed the question of whether or not privacy protections should go beyond the FTC's COPPA updates to include teens 17 and under, or whether there can be an "eraser" button for content kids want removed about themselves online. Both ideas were proposed in legislation introduced earlier this year by Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Texas.

"If you don't expand protections to 13-17 year-olds, how do we protect them? They are not adults," Barton asked.