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Senate weighs online privacy rules for tots

September 24, 1998
Web posted at 10:30 AM EDT

by Patrick Thibodeau

WASHINGTON (IDG) -- The privacy rights of children age 12 and under were the focus of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing as legislators considered a bill that would require commercial World Wide Web site operators to get parental consent before receiving a child's E-mail or home address.


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"Children 12 and under are not fully capable of understanding the consequences of giving out personal information online," said Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.). Bryan co-sponsored the bill, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).The idea for the bill was spurred by a Federal Trade Commission document released in June, Privacy Online: A Report to Congress, which eyed online privacy practices. Of 212 children's Web sites examined by the FTC, 90% collected personal information. Only 1% obtained parental permission to gather that data, the report said.

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FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky said the practice of collecting information from youngsters without parental consent is "not acceptable." "It almost reminds me of a door-to-door salesman coming to your home, knocking on your door and saying 'I want to chat with your 11-year-old, would you mind waiting in the kitchen,' " Pitofsky said at today's hearing. Pitofsky said the simplest way to obtain parental approval would be to print out a consent form posted on a Web site and mail it back. Industry groups, such the Direct Marketing Association, want the bill to be more flexible, suggesting that Web site operators have the ability, for instance, to provide parental notification, rather than get parental consent so a business can respond directly to a child's request. Mail-in parental notifications will cost businesses money, pointed out Arthur B. Sackler, vice president of law and public policy at Time Warner, Inc. Time Warner, for instance, offered a "risk-free" subscription to Sports Illustrated for Kids on its Web site. Subscribers could cancel after receiving the first issue. "We experienced very few cancelations and no complaints about the information that was collected," Sackler said.

But after noting privacy concerns, the magazine switched to a form that had to be printed out and returned by mail. Subscriptions requested from the Web site dropped more than 90% once that policy was adopted, Sackler said. "That's costing real money and probably will cost some jobs," he said. In its dealings with children, America Online, Inc. also uses forms that have to be mailed back. Jill Lesser, assistant general counsel at AOL, said the service doesn't have another way to identify parental consent.

As technologies such as digital signatures improve, Lesser said, AOL hopes it "can dispense with off-line consent and move to online consent."

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