Privacy program for kid Web sites comes under fire

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In a potential blow to the most significant self-regulatory program for children's Web sites, a consumer group and children's advocates are pressing the Federal Trade Commission to nix the industry's plan for complying with a kids privacy law.

The Center for Media Education led a coalition of child advocacy, health and consumer groups last week in challenging the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus' request to be a "safe harbor" for Web sites seeking compliance with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998. The law went into effect April 21.

COPPA includes a provision enabling industry and other groups to submit for FTC approval guidelines that follow the FTC's rule implementing the law. CARU made its request April 7 for approval of guidelines it first issued four years ago.

CME's report on the collection of information from kids helped prompt COPPA.


The challenge met with strong reaction from CARU and site representatives, who contend that CME's concerns are unfounded. CME said the guidelines aren't written clearly enough and aren't closely enough aligned with COPPA.

"I'm disappointed but not surprised they are challenging [our proposal] because I don't think there is a self-regulatory safe harbor that would meet their approval," said Elizabeth Lascoutx, director of CARU. "There are mistakes in [the CME's press] release and comment," including misinterpreted quotes from CARU representatives.

"Their agenda to have self-regulation not be the way to go is self-defeating because the FTC cannot possibly enforce the rules by itself. This frees up the FTC with its limited resources to focus on the bad actors," Ms. Lascoutx said.

But Amy Aidman, research director at the CME, said it's foolhardy to assume the industry can adequately regulate itself.


Although she said "we would have nothing against it" if CARU reworked its proposal based on CME's challenge, Ms. Aidman said, "I don't think we've seen self-regulation work. It's not that we are heavily into legislating solutions, but I don't think it's a good idea to let the marketplace regulate itself, especially when it comes to children. That's not something citizens should give up to industry. [Industry's] first priority is to make money, and I believe they will stretch the law as far as they can in order to make a profit."

As written, Ms. Aidman said, CARU's guidelines don't provide the same or greater protection as COPPA regarding notice and parental consent, and lack adequate provisions to ensure compliance.

But CARU guidelines were the basis of COPPA, argued Cassidy Sehgal, association counsel at kids site MaMaMedia, a CARU member. "Their main complaint seems to be that the guidelines don't track word-for-word COPPA," she said of the CME. "But I really don't think that they have to parrot the COPPA rules. The CARU guidelines are very clear.


"The CME has some legitimate concerns, but I don't think they should be overly paternalistic," Ms. Sehgal said. "At the end of the day, participating in the CARU safe harbor doesn't preclude a site from COPPA compliance. By participating, it elevates you to a higher level of scrutiny."

Advertisers including Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods, Hasbro, Mattel and M&M/Mars support CARU's guidelines.

The FTC has until the end of July to act on CARU's proposal.

Ms. Lascoutx was hopeful the FTC will, indeed, approve the proposal. "Because they call us to ask about Web site practices all the time, I think they'll find our program meets all the require-ments."

Contributing: Ira Teinowitz

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