| (Someone make sure Jeff Semon reads this - ok?)
So, as you know, there are lots of Congressmen and Senators who want to regulate the Internet - the best thing about America now - for lots of reasons. From my experience, you have to be most worried about our legislature when it wants to "protect children" as that law will be full of bad unintended consequences.
So last year, in 2011, Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) and Joe Barton (R-TX) co-sponsored a bill to update existing child-protection laws. That bill, the "Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011" is here. We've all seen the under-13 stuff on websites, which says that websites have to behave differently for what they do with the activity of 12-year-olds than adults.
This new law would up the age to 17, add more restrictions, and pre-empt state laws.
This has re-entered the news, as the Federal Trade Commission has just released a fair-minded report about the Internet and privacy. Markey and Senator Kerry say this report means their privacy legislation (they have different bills) should pass.
The question is this: should Republicans back these bills? I say no.
Yes, online privacy is important. However, European privacy legislation has been a major impediment to innovation for web applications. Even Kerry admits in this interview that we shouldn't just adopt exactly what they did.
Markey thinks his legislation is obvious to all. Yet, I don't agree. Under his bill, some of my teenage computer programming friends couldn't use very useful sites like GitHub to share code with adults, because that site "tracks" their activities. Teenagers couldn't use websites that recommended a song they would like. I could go on and on. Markey's bill claims that website operators should figure out how to let teens participate in the digital culture, but by preventing crucial tools to let them participate, they leave the website operators with little choice. And, just like on Facebook, the teenagers will just lie about their age. What's next? Have teens "show ID" at their local Post Office or Library to get access?
The FTC report acknowledges that there have been tremendous advances in self-regulation and transparency, as all major web browsers have a do-not-track setting that many companies now respect, there are fantastic free privacy tools available like TACO, and there are great plugins like Ghostery that show who is watching you. (You don't have to be technical to use any of this stuff.)
What should Republicans do?
- Begin with successful voluntary private initiatives and build upon that. (So, for instance, requiring firms to honor do-not-track browser settings would be reasonable.)
- Stop doing harm. Adjust legal liability to simplify 20-page privacy policies no one can understand.
- Admit that internet legislation to protect kids virtually never works, no matter how honorable the intent - and instead has all kinds of unintended consequences.
- Keep the boundary for onerous regulation at 13, not 17.
Ultimately, we must decide that it is so important that young people participate in the online revolution for their economic and cultural development, that we do not pass laws that compromise their experience in the belief that careless kids and unscrupulous website operators all over the world can really be handled by one-size-fits-all American government regulations. Instead, we must get behind things that are happening in the private sector, not try to "solve" this stuff from Washington, D.C.
(Lastly, if I have to trust people on regulating the Internet, it is absolutely not going to be Senator Kerry or Congressman Markey!)