HBO’s Silicon Valley Spotlights the Importance of COPPA


When it comes to digital destinations, does all that legal mumbo jumbo really matter? If you’ve been keeping up on the latest season of HBO’s Silicon Valley, you know: it absolutely does.

Now in its fourth season, Silicon Valley follows a burgeoning team of computer engineers building a startup tech company called Pied Piper; the show is beloved for its hilariously candid commentary on the culture of the tech and startup industries.

**Fair warning: Spoilers ahead**

In last week’s episode “Terms of Service,” the Pied Piper team finds itself in hot water when they realize so much of their PiperChat video chat app’s user base is under the age of 13. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except that now-CEO of Pied Piper Dinesh admits he never included the app’s Terms of Service – complete with COPPA requirements – into their app and user registration process. Not only that, but Pied Piper stores all user data and chat logs on their servers.

What is COPPA?

COPPA, or the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, was established in 1998 (revised further in 2013) and imposes strict requirements on any website or app that either targets children under 13 years of age, or knowingly collects personal information about users under 13.

As explained in the episode, each violation of COPPA carries a minimum fine of $16,000 and a maximum fine of $40,000.

(Yes, you might hide in your bathtub, too, if you incorrectly and illegally captured personal information from tens of thousands of minors under the age of 13 without verified permission.)

How important is COPPA?

Crucial. Terms of Service requirements are important for any digital service, be it a website, game, or app, but there’s even more on the line when children are involved. Complying with legal requirements like COPPA are essential for protecting both your users and your company.

“When we caught fire, the last thing I wanted to do was to bog our users down with legal bull****,” he says. “You know? I mean, nobody reads that stuff anyway.” -Dinesh’s reasoning surrounding Terms of Service application and the user experience.

Yes, user experience is important. But user safety has to be the priority.

What should companies do to ensure compliance?

Even though the fictional PiperChat app was not specifically targeted to children under 13, it did not have the proper procedures in place to ensure any users under 13 had verified parental permission to access the app. When developing Terms and Conditions, always consider not only your intended audience but your potential audience. More importantly, be sure to consult your company’s lawyer, engage a Safe Harbor program to ensure you’re in good-standing with the law, and hire experts in kids digital safety, like ModSquad, to assist in operation and management of any potential COPPA-related situation.

Children at school” by Lucélia Ribeiro is licensed under CC BY 2.0.