A proposed change to federal regulations designed to help parents control the information websites collect from their children is stirring a national debate about how much free speech and privacy American teenagers should have on the Internet.
For 10 years, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) has required websites aimed at children under 13 years old -- or sites that knowingly glean personal information from children 12 or younger -- to notify parents and get their permission before collecting, using or disclosing kids' e-mail addresses, age, gender and other details. The act also requires that website operators keep the personal information secure.
The Federal Trade Commission reviewed COPPA in 2005 and did not alter it. But now -- after a decade of explosive Internet expansion, including the growth of social networking sites and the increasing use of mobile technology to access the Web -- the FTC is taking another look. The agency began seeking public comment to reexamine COPPA in March, and it recently extended its deadline for comments until July 12.
And -- to the horror of the average high school student -- one of the things it will consider is a recommendation that the act be expanded to apply to everyone under the age of 18.
The proposal comes from Common Sense Media, a national organization of parents who "share a passion for media and for kids." The group contends that COPPA's protections should be extended to everyone under 18 because of the way teens use social networking sites and other online services to communicate.
"Today, changes in technology and digital media have made it even more difficult for parents to keep tabs on their children's personal information online," James Steyer, Common Sense Media's CEO and founder, said in a statement. "In this rapidly evolving and increasingly mobile digital world, parents can't control the types of information collected about their children online unless they're given reasonable opportunities, so the industry must make significant changes to the ways they collect personal information.
"In addition," he said, "parents can't control children's personal information online unless they understand how the online world works, so parents must have access to more information and educational tools."
But John Morris, general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, sees all sorts of issues with the proposal. After all, he notes, 15-year-olds in many states have the legal right to consent to medical procedures -- including abortion -- without parental consent.
"If you imagine a law that says you have the right to treat 17-year-olds differently than 18-year-olds, then what that says is that every website on the Internet that is subject to American law would have to implement a process to identify every single one of their users, including you and me," Morris told FoxNews.com.
He said he sees no "significant reason" to amend COPPA, though he called for a more general, baseline piece of legislation to require websites to get more detailed permission from users before they collect and use their personal information.
If the current rule is extended to cover all teenagers, Morris said he expects free speech and privacy to be affected "very dramatically," since sites that cater to younger users would not be able to access them without their parents' consent.
"Many sites would simply prohibit 16-year-olds from coming to the site," Morris said. "And I have a constitutional right to go post comments anonymously on the Washington Post's website and I would not be able to post that comment without figuring out that I'm a minor or not. It would be a dramatic and quite negative impact if the COPPA law were extended to reach older minors."
Other interest groups -- like the Center for Digital Democracy and 16 similar organizations that jointly submitted comments to the FTC -- are calling for a separate set of privacy protections for children between 13 and 18. They also want the FTC to extend COPPA's privacy protections to mobile phones, online gaming consoles, interactive television and other digital platforms, as well as to update its definition of "personal information" to include cookies, IP addresses and other pieces of data that can be used to identify and target consumers.
"Recent developments in technology and marketing practices require that the COPPA rules be updated and clarified," the groups' public comments read. "When Congress passed COPPA in 1998, computers provided the only means of accessing websites and online services. Today, adults and children have many other ways to access the Internet and online services including mobile phones, gaming consoles and interactive television. In addition, marketers have developed very sophisticated methods of collecting data and are using that data to target individuals with personalized marketing messages. These developments have increased the risks to children's privacy."
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center of Digital Democracy, said a separate set of privacy protections for teens is necessary, and he called for Fair Information Practices for teens that focus on protecting and regulating data, rather than discouraging adolescents from participating online.
"The minute you're 13 in this country, you're an adult when it comes to privacy," Chester told FoxNews.com. "We don't want to censor, but we also know that teens are ground zero for much of digital marketing."
He said critics of the proposal to create a second set of privacy guidelines for teens are misinterpreting the issue.
"They are afraid we're going to create a censored Internet, and that's not our goal or intent," he said. "But the rules were first created back in 2000 -- it's a whole new online out there. Data collection is at the core."
Chester continued, "There's legitimate concern anytime you try to meter the Web, but they're overhyping the fear."
Dr. Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, which recommends that teenagers be given "special consideration" when it comes to privacy protection, stressed the need for the basic industry standard for collecting and using personal information from "opt-out" to "opt-in."
"The default should not be collecting data," she said. "Operators should only collect and use teen data with a reasonably time-limited 'opt-in,' so that teenagers should be able to say, 'Yes, you can do this.'"
With such dramatic change to how young users access the Internet in the past five years, Linn said COPPA deserves a second look.
"There's a huge difference in how children access the Internet and also how they're targeted," she said. "The push to give every child cell phones means it's virtually impossible for parents to monitor what their children are doing online. Once the technology became miniaturized, oversight became so much harder, if not virtually impossible."
Rebecca Jeschke, spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has urged FTC officials not to turn the rule into an "age-verification mandate" for the Internet.
"While a site for pre-teens is likely to have content aimed squarely at that age group, many older teens use the same Internet services that adults do," Jeschke wrote in a July 2 blog posting. "If a site with a mixed-age user base is liable for letting kids use its services without a parent's permission, then it will likely set up elaborate age-verification for everyone. Of course, the more information a website collects, the more chances there are for it to get into the hands of a marketing company, a hacker, or someone who has filed a subpoena for it."
FTC officials, meanwhile, say it's too early to discuss possible changes to COPPA or their ramifications.
"This is an evolving process and the analysis of differing views will go on over a period of time," spokeswoman Claudia Bourne Farrell said. "It's very premature for the staff to take a position at this point."