Putting parents back in charge of kids' privacy

Prior to the Internet, it would have been unthinkable for businesses to collect detailed, personal information from young children without the consent of their parents. Confronted with evidence of the increasing

use of the Internet to do just that, Congress quickly passed the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in 1998. COPPA directed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to issue a rule governing the online collection and use of personally identifiable information from children under age 13.

The FTC's rule, which took effect April 21, requires Web site operators to provide notice and obtain "verifiable parental consent" before collecting or disclosing information from children. The rule and other relevant information is available at www.ftc.gov/kidzprivacy.

The statute and rule apply to commercial Web sites and online services that are directed to or that knowingly collect information from children under 13. The sites and services will be required to notify parents online about their policies concerning the collection, use and disclosure of children's personal information. With certain exceptions, sites will also have to obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting, using or disclosing personal information from children.

The rule allows for the establishment of self-regulatory "safe harbor" programs. To set up a safe harbor, businesses and trade groups submit guidelines to the FTC for approval. If their guidelines pass muster with the FTC, they will be considered "safe" and in compliance with the rule. Web site operators can then use these guidelines as models for their own operations. Applications for safe-harbor status and public comments on these applications are posted on the FTC Web site (www.ftc.gov). The FTC's decisions on the applications will be announced in the Federal Register and on the Web site within 180 days after an application is submitted. Parents and others may contact the approved safe-harbor programs to see which Web sites are complying with their guidelines.

The FTC's next steps will focus on enforcement and education about the rule through various outreach initiatives. For example, we're launching a Kidz Privacy public education campaign and building partnerships with industry and consumer groups to raise awareness about online privacy issues. We're working with such groups as the national PTA to distribute educational materials to parents, kids and schools. We're also sponsoring training programs on the rule for consumer and business groups, as well as for state attorneys general, who have the authority to enforce it.

COPPA and the FTC's rule provide important new protections for kids who surf the Net and for their parents. It puts parents back in charge of their children's personal information online. It gives them the tools to control who collects such information from their kids, how that information is used and whether it's shared with third parties. The rule implements one of the FTC's top goals: protecting children's privacy online.

BARBARA ANTHONY is director of the Federal Trade Commission's Northeast Region, in New York.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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