Thursday, November 28, 2019

COPPA: What should tech do know to deal with more problems in the future?


 “Protecting children” is certainly a concern for everyone, even those who don’t have kids.  It drives politicians to pass laws, like COPPA (not the same as the similarly motivated COPA, overturned in 2007), that will inevitably affect the speech and viewing of everyone.  One of my biggest concerns has been undermining of the capacity of individual persons to speak for themselves rather than paying heed to a tribe, a non-profit cause, or a larger corporate employer, or a need just to “sell stuff”.
Major conventional platforms are demonetizing and sometimes removing independent creators out of corporate interests, which (especially since Charlottesville) have led them to “bend the knee” to SJW boycott threats to a surprising degree. Biased articles in mainstream media have pressured Youtube, and it is clear that mainstream media doesn’t like to have to compete with individuals with low overhead.

And I get feedback in emails, not so well known publicly, that many are concerned that “free” political or social content from people who happen to have more money from other sources may not be welcome either a whole lot longer.  This sounds Marxist, even Marcusian, and it is.  But I’m very concerned about.  The Left especially wants action and solidarity and protesters, not talk and filming.

Tim Pool has a new spin on it today, where he describes a developing opportunity on Minds. I will certainly look into it (I do have a simple Minds page that attracts attention). My first reaction would be that my own video content particularly needs to be more professional. I will look into this.

Let’s focus on one particular thing:  YouTube apparently can’t be profitable and offer free uploading service to low-volume channels (like me) forever unless it can do behavioral (as opposed to contextual) ads on many of its channels.  COPPA blew a big hole into it. This is a huge business model vulnerability.

Facebook and Instagram apparently require log-in and an age-gate verification to even view content (I’m not sure about simply viewing corporate Facebook “pages” as I write this, so this has to be checked out) so they may not be much affected, as they have a pre-screened audience before doing behavioral ads. (They do have other problems – Cambridge, etc.) 

Logically, as Hoeg Law suggests, YouTube could develop an age-gate that secures and hides a family’s IP address the first time it is encountered, and require the family answer one question (just only on the first visit) about the presence of kids under 13 and never serve behavioral ads to that address.  That would comply with COPPA.  (A mid 2018 video by Canadian vlogger John Fish seems to point in this direction as to how to get started doing this.)  But, as YouTube says, there would be practical complexities, because most families would answer “yes, < 13”.  Business model gone.  One idea would be to hope that families have more than one IP address and reserve one for kids.  That’s not practical given the wealth inequality problems of many ordinary families.

This brings me to the subject of other websites – free-service blogs like this one (Blogger or Wordpress without hosting), and hosted blogs (usually connected to Wordpress) or sites when they offer ads.

There would be the risk, even with Adense (whose TOS does mention COPPA near the end) that if behavioral ads are served, the presence of occasional kid-friendly posts (like about toys or Christmas presents or reviews of kids’ movies) interspersed among general or adult posts (on business, finance, politics and social issues), would indirectly lead to COPPA problems.  So far the FTC has not, as far as I know, done anything about this other than from a few large companies who illegally and knowingly collected data from kids (Wikipedia talks about a few of these cases).  But it could happen.  I think some sites (like the revised Blogtyrant) have some information on how to tweek Adsense the way you want it (even after the deprecation of the Wordpress plugin in 2017) but I don’t know how these techniques would jive with COPPA compliance and that would seem to need attention. Sites that have sponsoring ads would have to be concerned, because site-owners might be liable for the sponsors (by the agency concept in law) if the sponsors collect data illegally (from anywhere in the world, of US families).

One solution for all such sites could be router-level age-gates, which cable providers (Comcast, etc) and wifi providers (Verizon, etc) could be encouraged to develop, probably with new third-party companies to license their use. These could be motivated by the idea of “guest accounts” which households (or even Airbnb renters) might use to defer liability for misuse by guests. Other ideas to come along could include, for example, Wordpress plugins for gating.

One final thought:  of course YouTube can consider simply renting hosted space for non-commercial use.  Bitchute and Vimeo appear to do this, and that solves part of the business model problem with regard to speech, but doesn’t save the channels of people who make a living from ads on kid-friendly content already (or even gamers).  And, for mainly ideological reasons, free political content from individuals may not be welcome for ever (this issue has already come up before;  see the 2005 FEC problem, note the next-to-last comment from EFF).
 I summarized all this with a Twitter thread this morning. 

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