FTC agrees to self-regulation for children's privacy at Web sites

Computer World –

The government approved the first self-regulatory guidelines yesterday for protecting children's privacy on the Internet.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Thursday unanimously granted the first "safe harbor" guidelines to ensure compliance with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which was passed by Congress in 1998.

The FTC set up the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule in October 1999 to ensure compliance with the act. The rule requires operators of Web sites geared toward children to post privacy policies on their sites, notify parents about the information they're gathering and obtain parental consent before collecting personal information from children under age 13.

The rule also provides for the establishment of self-regulatory "safe harbor" programs. To set up a safe harbor, businesses and trade groups propose guidelines to the FTC. If their guidelines are approved, they're considered "safe" and in compliance with the rule. Web site operators can then use these guidelines as models for their own operations.

The guidelines approved by the FTC were proposed by the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Children's Advertising Review Unit, a separate arm of the advertising industry's self-regulatory program established in 1974.

While the Children's Advertising Review Unit has been around for almost 30 years, its guidelines weren't strong enough at first to protect children on the Internet, said Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp. in Green Brook, N.J.

"They revised the proposal, and then we supported it, because it seemed to be stronger than what the FTC's rule-making required," Catlett said.

The Center for Media Education (CME), a Washington-based national watchdog group on electronic media for children, also had qualms with the original Children's Advertising Review Unit proposal to the FTC.

"Of particular concern is [the Children's Advertising Review Unit's] ability to adequately monitor Web sites," said CME president Kathryn Montgomery in a statement last May. Montgomery, reached today, said her group is now satisfied with the revisions.

According to the CME, during 1998, the Children's Advertising Review Unit's routine patrols of Web sites with content directed at children resulted in only 10 informal inquiries and two formal cases involving "online issues." That same year, the FTC surveyed 212 Web sites directed toward children and found 46 percent of the Web sites didn't include any disclosure of their collection and use of personal information, despite the fact that 89 percent of the sites collected one or more types of personal information from children.

According to a letter from the FTC to the Children's Advertising Review Unit, dated Jan. 26: "To be approved by the Commission, self-regulatory guidelines must include: (1) a requirement that participants in the safe harbor program implement substantially similar requirements that provide the same or greater protections for children as those contained in the Rule; (2) an effective mandatory mechanism for the independent assessment of safe harbor programs participants' compliance with the guidelines; and (3) effective incentives for safe harbor participants' compliance with such guidelines."

This story, "FTC agrees to self-regulation for children's privacy at Web sites" was originally published by ITworld.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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