Report: Most children's Web sites don't meet privacy guidelines

Almost a year after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) passed guidelines for protecting children's privacy on the Internet, many Web sites aren't living up to the letter or the spirit of the law, according to a report from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

The center studied how well sites have conformed to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which went into effect last April.

"As we approach the first anniversary of the privacy policy rules, an examination of the 162 sites with the highest percentage of child visitors under age 13 revealed that they often did not live up to the spirit and sometimes even the letter behind the rules. Privacy policies are typically too unclear and time-consuming to realistically encourage parents to confidently guide their children's Internet experiences," the report said.

The study used data from New York-based Nielsen Media Research Inc.'s Nielsen//NetRatings service to determine which sites were most visited by children.

Of the sites surveyed, 17 collected information about the users but didn't post links to their privacy policies from the home page. Of those that did have a link, 44% followed FTC guidelines by putting the link in a different font; only 6% put the link in a different color and 68% put the link at the bottom of the home page.

A key component of complying with the COPPA guidelines is making privacy policies clear and easily accessible for parents, said Joseph Turow, professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication and the author of the report. He said most sites still don't meet these criteria.

Among his recommendations, Turow said that sites intended for children ages 2 through 12 should have a clear marker, such as a distinctive letter K for kids.

Web sites shouldn't have to rely on collecting personally identifiable information to survive, he said in the report. "Nobody ever said that information should be cheap," Turow said. "Nobody ever said that everything should be free just because it's on the Web. That goes for the consumer as well as for the company."

Steve Schaffer, CEO of San Francisco-based Newfront Productions Inc., which runs several Web sites, including NancyDrew.com, said he disagrees and that the regulations are killing Internet sites geared toward children.

"What is happening now is the legitimate kids' sites are either going out of business or they're turning into teen sites [that don't come under the COPPA guidelines], and then the kids are going to those sites," Schaffer said. "The problem is, there's nothing on the Internet for kids anymore. If you follow the policies, you still get called out because somebody interprets the policy differently than you do."

NancyDrew.com was one of the sites singled out by the Annenberg study for not posting a link to its privacy policy on its home page.

A link is now in place. "It was up from the beginning, but it fell off for a little bit of time," apparently while the University of Pennsylvania students were reviewing his site, Schaffer said. "How? I don't know," he ssaid. "Stuff happens on the Web."

He also argued that the classification of "home page" is meaningless because what users might think is a Web site's home page may not be. Schaffer added that the Web sites he manages don't collect personal information.

"We got out of the kid business because of these very issues," Schaffer said. "The only way to make money on the Internet right now is advertising, because parents won't buy subscriptions," he said, and in order to sell advertising space, a site needs to show traffic information.

Turow disagreed and cited a few examples of what he calls "responsible" children's sites: MaMaMedia.com, Hasbrointeractive.com, Chevroncars.com and Lunchables.com.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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