‘Lil Poopy’ can’t read about himself on Boston.com, thanks to lawsuits and terrible federal law

‘Lil Poopy’ is a minor local celebrity prohibited from reading about his own exploits on various local media websites.
‘Lil Poopy’ is a minor local celebrity prohibited from reading about his own exploits on various local media websites.
Emily J. Reynolds / Licensed under Creative Commons

If you’re under 13, you should not be reading this: The Boston Globe’s Terms of Service prohibit youngsters from accessing Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com, thanks to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), while Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) means budding news hounds could theoretically face jail time.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation raised the issue in an effort to push for reforms of the CFAA

Boston.com’s terms of service read:

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You must be 13 years or older to use or subscribe to all parts of the Services.

But the policy can lead to some odd situations, such as nine-year-old rapper ‘Lil Poopy’ being barred from reading a report about himself that said he is not being abused or neglected by his family. Unless, that is, he picks up a print edition of the Globe, which currently does not come with a terms of service or age restriction.

A New York Times Company lawyer confirmed that the Boston Globe’s digital properties prohibit users under thirteen years of age.

And the Globe is not alone in Boston:

— BostInno and the Boston Business Journal both note “this Service is not intended for use by children, especially those under age 13.”

— WickedLocal and the rest of GateHouse allow read but not write privileges: “You must be at least 13 years old to contribute content to this Website.”

— Metro takes a don’t ask, don’t tell approach: “We do NOT knowingly collect personally identifiable information from children under the age of thirteen as part of the Service.”

UniversalHub and the Boston Herald both seem to welcome readers of all ages.

The age restrictions can be traced to COPPA, a 1998 law meant to protect the privacy of children through restrictions on how their information is collected, shared, and used.

While provisions in the law do allow chidren to register (or in this case, read) on websites with parental permission, many sites find it simpler and safer to ban that segment of readership entirely in the terms of service and turn a blind eye to violators.

The threat of COPPA to website operators is real. In 2006, the Federal Trade Commission levied a million dollar fine against Xanga, a blogging platform popular among youths at the time knowingly collecting data on children.

What is less clear under the law is the legal consequences underage readers could face, if any, for violating those terms of service.

The Atlantic Wire’s Philip Bump called such violations a potential “crime”: Federal prosecutors’ have taken a broad reading of CFAA and its provision that criminalizes those “exceeding authorized access” to gain “information from any protected computer,” in some cases claiming that violating little-read terms-of-service agreements is a form of “exceeding authorized access.”

But the Electronic Frontier Foundation said that some courts have been pushing back against this interpretation. Judge Alex Kozinski pointed out that under the “government’s proposed interpretation of the CFAA [...] describing yourself as ‘tall, dark and handsome,’ when you’re actually short and homely, will earn you a handsome orange jumpsuit.”

There is also a growing movement among digital rights activists and sympathetic politicians to pass a bill dubbed Aaron’s Law, which is named after data activist Aaron Swartz who committed suicide this year. Advocates argue the law would reign in CFAA’s scope.

Others are pushing back against opaque terms of service, with sites like TOSDR helping summarize lengthy legalese and ranking policies on how user-friendly they are.

In the end, all those steps may do a little to reduce the willful ignorance inherent in site privacy policies. Real reform would take something more radical: A Congress willing to overhaul how the law handles electronic privacy and security, a task overdue by decades since the groundwork was set in 1984.

In the meantime, if Lil Poopy needs to build some street cred through a tangle with the feds, he could start by just reading this article.