Viewpoint: Gov't must take lead in protecting children

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The world wide web is creating a powerful electronic children's culture for the digital age. This medium, with dazzling graphics and engaging interactivity, has unprecedented potential to enrich children's lives. But there also is a serious danger that cyberspace could become inundated with harmful and deceptive marketing practices, which threaten not only children's privacy, but also the future of e-commerce.

ALARMING TRENDS

Two years ago, my organization (the Center for Media Education) released a report documenting marketing practices on children's Web sites. We found many sites were using varied techniques, including surveys, contests and offers of free gifts, to get children to provide such personal data as an e-mail address, street address, purchasing behavior and preferences, plus information about other family members.

Alarmed at these trends, the Center for Media Education and Consumer Federation of America called on the Federal Trade Commission to develop guidelines for protecting children's privacy online.

The online industry argued against any rules and promised to curtail the invasion of privacy through self-regulation. But despite the work of organizations such as the Children's Advertising Review Unit and the Direct Marketing Association, it is clear self-regulation will not protect privacy rights of children on the Internet.

The shocking findings of the recent FTC study provide powerful evidence of just how badly these self-regulatory efforts have failed.

The FTC has asked Congress to "develop legislation placing parents in control of the online collection and use of personal information from their children." We strongly agree that government must play a leadership role in setting boundaries for online marketing and data collection practices.

WHAT PARENTS WANT

Polls taken last year by the Georgia Institute for Technology and Louis Harris & Associates revealed a majority of parents want stronger laws protecting children's Internet privacy. Clear rules would create a safe harbor for companies that practice responsible marketing and establish an enforcement mechanism to punish bad actors.

Kathryn C. Montgomery is president of the Center for Media Education, a Washington-based organization dedicated to ensuring the electronic media serve the needs of children and families. Further information about CME, including the proposed CME/CFA privacy guidelines, can be found at our site.

Copyright June 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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