Online Privacy Isn't Child's Play
The move last week by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is drawing a strong reaction from the Web sites singled out for violating children's privacy protection rules.
Spokespeople from those Web sites said they believe the FTC's
The FTC's battle to regulate the privacy of children online, and the difficulty some Web operators have faced in complying with the regulations, perhaps only foreshadow the roadblocks operators and regulators face in dealing with privacy issues for a medium as far-reaching as the Web.
Coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the COPPA rule, the FTC
The Web operators offered children access to services such as chat rooms, free e-mail, bulletin boards, and advice columns.
The FTC claims that the sites, which are the first to be
Under COPPA, which went into effect April 21, 2000, commercial Web sites are prohibited from soliciting personal information from kids under 13 without directly notifying parents of collection practices and then obtaining permission to solicit personal information from the minors.
But spokespeople from two of the sites charged claim that guidelines on how to operate under the rule have been vague, and have expressed surprise that the FTC has taken legal action with Web operators that they feel are on the low end of the violation curve.
"In this case it was odd that they took an interpretation of the rule that was at the very least extremely aggressive," says Reed Freeman, an attorney for BigMailbox.com, who used to work at the FTC.
Karen Bokram, publisher of the Girls' Life site, says that because of the rule's vague language her company asked for guidance from the FTC on how to comply.
"They never once, despite repeated written requests for clarification, gave it to us," Bokram says.
However, Levin says that the agency has made the rules regarding COPPA clear. The agency has a Web site with the regulations posted, and offers compliance seminars, as well as a hotline and e-mail address for questions.
Despite the FTC's efforts, some sites stumbled over the new law.
Levin says that in the case of mixed-audience sites, it is not enough simply to block users under 13, and essentially invite them to lie about their age.
"They must be monitored in a neutral fashion," Levin says.
Bokram admits that her site solicited personal information for change-of-address forms and poetry submissions, but says the information was not retained. Furthermore, Bokram says, Girls' Life shifted to fax-only change-of-address forms, intending to limit the information requests to adults. In the end, however, these measures did not meet guidelines.
Both Web operators settled their cases with the FTC to avoid costly litigation. Under the settlements, the Web operators must delete all personally identifying information collected from children online since the rule went into effect. The operators must also agree to comply with the COPPA rule in all future information collecting transactions.
While operators of the sites charged in the FTC's first-round clamp down on children's online privacy raise concern over the enforcement of COPPA, proponents claim that the new law has already done a great deal in furthering online privacy.
The FTC reports that the number of children's Web sites that have posted a privacy warning since the rule was applied increased from 24 percent in 1998 to 91 percent currently. A study by the Center for Media Education notes that
"We think there has been a lot of progress and we are not disheartened by a lack of compliance," Levin says. "Regulations need time to take effect."