Kids a priority for this crusader

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While there are a number of legislators and regulators whose work eventually helped pass the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1999 -- the biggest piece of Internet privacy legislation enacted by Congress -- it was Kathryn Montgomery and her group's work that almost single-handedly spurred its creation.

The group's 1996 "Web of Deception" report that documented gathering of kids' personal information on the Web without parental permission, lack of security of that information, and marketers' use of product mascots to educate and advertise to young kids without defining the difference. That led Congress to pass COPPA in 1998, resulting in Federal Trade Commission creating rules in 1999 that went into effect in April of this year.


"Web of Deception" had its genesis in 1991 when Ms. Montgomery and husband Jeff Chester moved from California to Washington and formed the consumer group.

"We felt there was a need for public interest representation on new-media issues," she says. "We saw the whole growth of the new media going on. I as a media historian and professor of film and Jeff as an activist felt there was a contribution we could make."

Why children's issues?

Ms. Montgomery says passage of the Children's Television Act, which required broadcasters to set aside time for children's programming, prompted her to work on kids issues. The law resulted in Federal Communications Commission rulemaking, something she says cried out for public involvement.

The move to the Web was an outgrowth. "I felt we had an important role to play in determining the rules of the next media system," she says. With the aid of grants, the couple set about examining a host of new-media issues, an examination that continues today as Center for Media Education involves itself in fights about cable companies' Internet-access issues and requirements for broadcasters in the digital age.


The attention to children and data collection, though, was an original focus. "I knew going in that data collection for the new media and its unprecedented possibility to invade privacy was one of the big issues," says Ms. Montgomery.

"Web of Deception" was the first comprehensive look at what marketers were doing and asking at kids' sites. While the report drew criticism from marketers for some of the solutions it offered -- one suggestion was banning ad mascots on informational pages -- it also brought more than a little embarrassment for marketers. In one notable instance, the report told of kids being asked to reveal their parents' income.

More than one marketing manager ordered immediate changes to Web sites after first learning exactly what information their young Web designers had been regularly asking from kids.

Perhaps because of the focus on kids, the report got considerable publicity and drew the interest of then-Federal Trade Commission member Christine Varney. It launched the FTC on a much broader look at Web issues that also examined privacy issues on adult sites, leading to several "sweeps" of kids' and adult Web sites by the FTC.

COPPA, which limited the kind of information sites can get from kids without parental permission, was one outcome. Although some children's sites complain that COPPA has made it very expensive to operate -- kids chat rooms have to be monitored to prevent kids from disclosing personal information -- Ms. Montgomery defends it.

She testified recently at a Federal Communications Commission hearing, urging that strong standards be set into changes in broadcasters' public interest obligations that will come as they switch to a digital signal that permits them to send four signals at once.


"Clear and effective safeguards must be put in place now to protect children from manipulative and exploitive advertising in digital television," she testified, warning that digital TV threatens to obliterate the line between content and advertising.

She also joined Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television, Alvin F. Poussaint of Harvard University's Media Center and several psychologists in a letter to each presidential candidate urging candidates take "a leadership role" in drastically reducing the amount of marketing aimed at children.

CME is also studying some of the impact on teen culture being created by the Web and not just by commercial sites. Ms. Montgomery says her concern is that the issues be responded to before practices get too ingrained to change.

"The lesson of TV is that if practices are fully entrenched, they are harder to change," says Ms. Montgomery. "Some rules are established at the outset."