Senators seek bill to protect privacy of kids

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Two senators are rapping marketers' increasing attempts to use schools for marketing, warning that they will push Congress to require schools to ask parental permission before providing even anonymous information.

U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, (D-Conn.), announced plans to reintroduce his Student Privacy Protection Act, and said he hopes to attach the legislation to changes in federal education laws being sought by President George W. Bush. The Bush education bill could be considered by Congress before the end of April.

"Schools are there to help children grow up to be good citizens, not to be a captive audience for market researchers and major advertisers," said Sen. Dodd. He called the market research taking place at schools "part of a larger phenomenon familiar to anyone who has walked in a school in the past few years: The stunning increase in commercial advertising in the schools." He added: "Advertisers focus on schools for the same reasons that Willy Sutton robs banks. That is where the money is."

The bill's co-sponsor, Sen. Richard Shelby, (R-Ala.), said marketers have gone too far in schools. "I believe our children in America are being exploited ... [Marketers] are tracking what [students] do every day," he said. "The bottom line is parents ought to be involved and people should not be able to track what [kids] buy, what they do, without their consent."

An attempt to pass identical legislation last year failed after raising the ire of marketing, media groups and of school administrators. The marketers said school administrators and school boards should make their own decisions regarding marketing programs in school.

In a letter sent last May to every senator, the Magazine Publishers of America called the Student Privacy Protection Act "well meaning," but warned it could have significant unintended consequences.

Bill opponents last year argued that if a few parents failed to return forms giving publishers and companies information about who was seeing their products, that could make it impossible for teachers to use Highlights for Children in the classroom. It would also make it harder to raise money through magazine drives and publish yearbooks, they said. Marketing groups said that under the proposal, for example, schools offered free breakfast cereal in return for information on which ones the students preferred would first have to ask for parental permission. If some parents didn't provide permission, that would force the school to make other provisions for those students.

Although Congress approved no major education legislation last year, advertiser groups are worried this session. President Bush's focus on education has made passage of an education bill likely, giving the two senators a stronger opportunity to pass the measure. Meanwhile, the volume has been raised in the discussion over privacy protection as it relates to violent movies and videogames, and in proposals to limit advertising directed to kids.

Sen. Dodd called on marketers to support his bill, saying it only requires that parents be notified, and noting the bill may allow school districts to do some general notification. "I think this is a very modest step and I would urge the industry to get behind it," he said. "You are going to look pretty silly and you may get a ban on this [activity] if you don't support the measure," he said. At the same time, Sen. Shelby said he expected parents, given a choice, would choose not to let information on their kids go to marketers.

Marketing groups made clear they will fight. "This would make it impossible for schools to do anything," said Jeff Perlman, senior VP-government affairs for the American Advertising Federation. "Imagine you had 95% of parents say `Yes,' but 5% don't send in permission slips. What are you going to do, leave those kids out? It creates horrible disparities." Dan Jaffe, exec-VP the Association of National Advertisers, said marketers are very concerned about the measure. "The government should not be the school principal," he said.

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