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How the government helps keep your kids safe online

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by Staff Writer

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This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.

Online safety for kids has garnered a lot of media attention lately, with questions arising about how to protect the privacy of minors, stop cyberbullying, keep kids away from unwanted content, and protect them from Internet predators. The 2006 cyberbullying case of Megan Meier in Dardenne Prairie, Minnesota, brought the potential consequences of cyberbullying to light with the teen’s suicide following online bullying at the hands of neighbors. More recently, the case of Jessi Slaughter showed just how vicious cyberbullying can be.

As always, parents should take an active role in protecting their kids online. However, this article discusses some of the measures that states and the federal governments have taken to protect people’s privacy and make the Internet a safer environment for kids.

Federal laws that protect the privacy of minors

In the late 1990s, the members of the federal government became aware of the growing need to protect privacy online – particularly as it related to minors using the Internet. In 1998, the first major legislation made its way through Congress and was passed into law. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998 was the first law of its kind. The law protects the privacy of minors by legislating that online entities won’t obtain a child’s personal information without parental consent. It also makes it illegal to require minors to provide more information than is necessary to play a game online or participate in a contest. All websites must also make their privacy policies available to parents.

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In 2000, the FTC added additional rules to COPPA in order to tighten up safety and privacy regulations for minors. Under the new regulations, online sites that are directed at children must provide parents with notices of their information practices and obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting any personal information from minors. Sites must also grant parental access to and control of all of their child’s stored information. Parents can also choose whether or not websites can provide third party disclosure of their children’s information, and they have the opportunity to prevent further collection of information from their kids. These are just a few of the ways how the government helps keep your kids safe online.

State cyberbullying laws

On the cyberbullying front, progress has mostly happened on the state level. Currently, 45 states have anti-bullying laws in place, and many have updated those laws to address cyberbullying. Most of the legislation addressing online bullying does so through a mandate to schools to enact measures that protect kids from any type of harassment from their peers. Schools may use disciplinary measures like suspension and anti-bullying policies that incorporate language including terms like “online harassment.” States with anti-bullying laws that address online harassment currently include Washington, Vermont, Rhode Island, New York, Missouri, Oregon, New Jersey, Idaho, Arkansas, and Massachusetts, among others.

Specific laws aimed at protecting kids online

Federal legislation to protect children online dates back to the early years of the millennium, including:

  • The Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2001 (CIPA) protects minors who access the Internet in schools and libraries. The Act does this by legislating that the institutions have Internet safety policies in place that block obscene and harmful content. They also direct schools and libraries to monitor the online activity of minors and adopt a safety policy that addresses email, chat rooms, and electronic communications. Of course, given the rise of smartphones, some of these provisions are less directly applicable than they once were.
  • The Efficiency Act of 2002 created a kids.us domain for content directed to minors. The goal was to create a safe, kid-friendly environment on the Internet. However, the nature of the Internet and the way we use it have changed dramatically since 2002, and the site was retired in 2012.
  • In 2008, the Broadband Data Improvement Act was signed into law. The Act protects minors by mandating an FTC campaign to increase public awareness about safe Internet use. The Act also has provisions to educate minors about appropriate online behavior and causes of Internet harassment. It also imposes a forfeiture penalty on people who violate FCC regulations for the sexual exploitation of minors.
  • The Protect Our Children Act of 2008 is another federal act that includes legislation regarding the online safety of minors. The Act appropriated more than $300 million to help fight Internet crimes against children by establishing a task force that helps state and local law enforcement develop an effective response to cyber enticement and child pornography.
  • Social networks like Twitter and Facebook have received special attention from government agencies. Very few policies are in place at social networks to protect the safety of children. Therefore, in 2008, attorneys general from 49 states reached an agreement with the social networking site MySpace to better protect minors in their community. The terms of the agreement called for MySpace to create stronger age identity verification, set up a registry of parent-supplied blocked email addresses, make the profiles of minors default to private settings, and establish a section of the site specifically for minors.
  • In 2009, the State of New Jersey was the first state to address social networking by proposing the Social Networking Safety Act, which was to require social networks to have “report” icons for inappropriate content and cyber harassment. It also directs networks to investigate any reports and take appropriate action. If the social network fails to effectively investigate and respond appropriately, it can be sued for consumer fraud.