Are Librarians Encouraging Libraries to Abide by COPPA?

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The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was created to prevent corporations from collecting data about children without parental permission. This law explicitly does not apply to public institutions, non-profits, and government agencies. Yet, many public institutions not only choose not to collect data about children; they forbid children from accessing information without parental permission. Much to my surprise, this includes many public libraries.

librarian
Librarian by Jeshua.Nance via Flickr

Dear Librarians... Will you help explain something to me?

Last week, I went to the Boston Public Library's website to obtain digital access. In creating my account, I was surprised to encounter this clause:

"Anyone individual who lives, works, attends school, or owns property in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and is at least 13 years of age may register for an eCard. Library cards for corporations, businesses, libraries, institutions, and children under the age of 13 must be obtained in person at one of our locations."

 

Surprised by finding the age restriction - and particularly curious about the fact that it's 13 - I decided to write to the administrators about why they chose to restrict access to children. What I received in response made my heart sink: 

The age restriction on eCard registration is required so that we comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a federal law enacted in 1998. The law requires all web sites that collect personally-identifiable information from visitors (name, address, phone, etc.) to restrict registration to individuals of age 13 or older. It's the same reason Facebook states that users must be 13 or older.

 

I wrote back to explain that COPPA does not apply to the Boston Public Library because of its non-profit, municipality-driven status. I pointed them to the FTC's website that explains the rule and asked them for further clarification on why they were restricting access to children. I received the following in response:

I assure you that our intention is not to restrict access to children. However, in addition to staying on the safest side of COPPA, we also require a parent's signature before issuing library cards to children under the age of 13. Please see http://www.bpl.org/general/circulation/whocard.htm for more information about borrower eligibility.

 

Amidst this, an amazing Harvard Law School librarian Meg Kibble sent John Palfrey a long note, indicating that BPL was indeed a non-profit and thus probably not required to follow COPPA. Still, she noted that many librarians used COPPA as a starting point:

BPL may be choosing to err on the side of caution. A number of library-related materials I found urge libraries to be aware of COPPA and one suggested adhering to COPPA even though it is not required:
  • A CLE on Legal Issues in Museum Administration (attached) by Hope O'Keefe, OGC at Library of Congress, includes creating an online privacy policy as part of best practices and suggests in it "Follow COPPA and document compliance (parental notice & consent to any information collection from children) even if COPPA doesn't apply."
  • ALA's Privacy Tool Kit discusses COPPA in relation to school media centers: “The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) directly affects commercial Web sites targeted to children, as well as those sites that know they are collecting personally identifiable information from children 12 and under. . . .Although libraries are not directly impacted by COPPA, children using the Internet in a library may need help understanding the law and getting consent from their parents.”
  • ALA Introduction to COPPA states "Although COPPA does not impose any specific requirements on libraries, in order to provide the best possible service to families, librarians must be aware of the rules governing children's privacy on the Internet if their libraries provide Internet access."

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