Sen. Richard Bryan (D., Nev.), responding to criticism of his bill, said he is willing to limit the legislation's effect to kids less than 13 years old and also is working with the various groups objecting to the restrictions to make other changes. But he still hopes to proceed with the legislation this year.
It wasn't immediately clear, however, whether the changes, due to be acted on by a Senate panel this week, will quiet fears among marketers and some technology experts.
CRITICS CITE CONCERNS
Those fears were expressed last week at a hearing of a Senate Commerce subcommittee. Critics of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, sponsored by Sens. Bryan and John McCain (R., Ariz.), warned that, as currently written, the bill could essentially bar marketers' use of e-mail to kids, put sites that appeal to both adults and children in some legal jeopardy and prevent kids from getting information from museums and other non-profit sites.
Critics also voiced concerns about giving parents the right to see and change information their kids put online.
The bill is an attempt by Sens. Bryan and McCain to implement recommendations of a Federal Trade Commission study of online children's privacy issues. The legislation, however, goes beyond the study's recommendation for requiring parental consent for transactions with those under 13, mentioning older kids as well, and it also attempts to define and deal with the difficult issue of when and how parental consent is required, an issue the FTC study didn't fully resolve.
The Association of National Advertisers, American Library Association, America Online and Center for Democracy & Technology said the bill could have the effect of eliminating many of the benefits of online communications for kids.
"As introduced, [the bill] would create strict liability for many sites that are not directed to children but have a minority of children among their visitors," said Arthur Sackler, Time Warner VP-law and public policy, in prepared testimony. Mr. Sackler, representing the Direct Marketing Association at the hearing, called for the legislation to be more clearly directed at sites aimed at children.
Critics also are concerned that parental permission would be required before a child could give out even an e-mail address to marketers, and children who don't lie about their age could have to download parental consent forms and fax them back to get newsletters or answers to questions, even if marketers made no use of the e-mail information for marketing purposes.
Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education, urged the subcommittee to allow marketers to answer single e-mails if they don't keep track of the address but be barred from offering regular e-mail newsletters without parental permission.
MIDDLE GROUND SOUGHT
Time Warner's Mr. Sackler said providing newsletters is essential to some sites and noted Sports Illustrated for Kids provides updates for statistics for a fantasy sports league through a newsletter.
He cautioned there is danger the Internet could "lose the spontaneity, the immediacy. We would like to see some middle ground."
"Through creating privacy protections, we don't want to turn the Internet into a television set," said Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel to the Center for Democracy & Technology.
FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky said the Internet differs from a mall where a store could put out a box seeking entries for a contest from kids without parental consent.
"The ability to slice it, to dice it [the information] is different than a store in a mall," he said.