FTC proposal on kids' privacy raises ire of watchdog groups

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Kid-targeted web sites have always faced the problem of how to verify that kids have their parents' permission to give information online. Now a Federal Trade Commission's review of a 6-year-old interim solution is reigniting the controversy over what Web sites need to do.

An FTC proposal to make permanent the sliding-scale approach to what information can be obtained and kept is inflaming consumer groups that charge the move is a perversion of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires sites collecting or using information from kids under 13 to get parental permission. The law left to the FTC to determine how that permission is obtained.

"We will not allow the industry working with the FTC to water this [law] down," said Katherine Montgomery, who as a founder of the Center for Media Education, did many of the studies about marketers' Web activities that led to the law. She warned that if the FTC acted consumer groups would likely go back to Congress.

The law is intended to rein in marketers' use of kids' sites to get family information, and requires those Web sites to verify parents have given permission. Fearing that forcing parents to mail or fax verification would make kids' Web sites financially unviable and electronic verification methods would quickly develop, the FTC in 1999 temporarily allowed Web sites to let parents simply return an e-mail to approve certain information. Three years ago, with no other means surfacing, the FTC extended the solution.

PERMANENT SOLUTION SOUGHT

Now with the extension set to expire in April, the FTC is proposing to make the solution permanent.

That is just fine with marketers and Internet providers.

"Permitting Web-site operators different methods of obtaining verifiable parental consent, depending on degree of risk to a child, maintains the flexibility needed in the fast-paced Internet environment," wrote Corrine Murat, Mattel's senior manager-government affairs, in comments to the FTC.

Christine Varney, a former FTC commissioner, representing the Motion Picture Association of America, called the sliding scale "effective and successful. ... There is no good reason to switch to less-certain technologies when the current solution works well."

The U.S. Internet Service Provider Association, citing unsuccessful efforts to develop electronic verification, called the chances that a new system would be developed now "unlikely" and said there is "no sound reason" for replacing the sliding scale, which "appropriately establishes a burden of obtaining verifiable consent that is commensurate with the risk of harm to a child's privacy."

Consumer groups, however, suggest the FTC is moving far too quickly and without enough information on whether the e-mail permission process is being subverted by the kids themselves or on how much information marketers are still collecting from the kids.

The FTC "does not have sufficient independent information to proceed with any changes," wrote Ms. Montgomery and Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. "The sliding scale must be extended until the commission can review appropriate scholarly and objective market analysis. To do anything less would harm the privacy rights of children ordered by Congress."

Other consumer groups are also calling for more research.

"There is no research to indicate whether the sliding scale is the most effective way of protecting children," said the Children's Media Policy Coalition, a group that includes Children Now, the National PTA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and also includes Ms. Montgomery.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, another group active in the initial fight, warned that just requiring a parental e-mail would "weaken" the law and also suggested that the FTC needs to more clearly define when consent is obtained, and whether the information can't be used by affiliate or related companies.

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