WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government laid out new rules for
protecting kids' privacy on the Internet Wednesday, allowing
companies to send e-mail to parents seeking permission to ask
children questions -- but only if the information is not shared with
The rules are designed to tell companies how to comply with a
new federal privacy law that bans them from collecting personal
information from children without a parent's permission.
One of the most contentious provisions involved a compromise
allowing businesses for the next two years to send e-mail to
The new rules from the Federal Trade Commission, approved 4-0,
are expected to have a dramatic impact on hundreds of popular
Internet sites aimed at children, which typically offer online
games and entertainment in exchange for personal information
valuable to marketers.
Catherine Benjamin, a mother of two young children in Rolling
Meadows, Ill., called the law "long overdue" and bristled at how
easy children online can be persuaded to disclose even the most
"It scares us," said Mrs. Benjamin, who recently warned her
12-year-old niece about these risks. "Children just give out
information on the Internet. There's a lot of wonderful
opportunities on the Internet ... (but) it can become a dangerous
The FTC will begin enforcing the new rules in April.
"There's a real problem out there," said FTC Chairman Robert
Pitofsky. "We're going to give the industry six months to get its
act together to make changes. After that, we'll monitor these Web
sites and we'll take enforcement action."
The FTC said Web sites that share children's information with
other companies must obtain a parent's permission through mailed or
faxed paperwork, calls to a toll-free number, through use of a
credit-card number or via e-mail using nascent digital signature
The provision over a parent's consent was among the most
controversial. E-mail is the most convenient and immediate method
for granting permission, but it's also simple to impersonate
another person online -- especially for kids who often know more
about technology than their parents.
"E-mail is completely useless," said Stephen Savitzky, a
father of two young girls in Silicon Valley who runs a Web site
with warnings for kids. "What's to keep the kids from giving their
own e-mail address, or one of their many e-mail addresses? It's
The new law, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act,
requires commercial Web sites generally to obtain consent from
parents before asking children under 13 for their names, addresses,
telephone numbers or other identifying information.
"The FTC did a good, balanced job," said Ron Plesser, an
attorney who worked with the Direct Marketing Association and other
industry groups. "Everything's a compromise -- it's not all great
for industry, but it resolves some major concerns."
Jason Catlett of Junkbusters Corp., who has frequently
criticized the FTC on other privacy issues, praised it for a
"remarkably good job."
"The intent of Congress and the common sense expectations of
parents seemed to have survived intact," Catlett said.
Pitofsky said that in two years the FTC will reconsider whether
e-mail can be more widely used to seek a parent's permission, as
techniques improve for ensuring the identity of e-mail authors.
The industry, which generally supported the privacy law, had
warned regulators that imposing barriers that are too onerous
between a child and his favorite Web site might discourage kids
from spending time online.
But Pitofsky said rules requiring a parent to mail or fax their
permission -- a process that could take days -- will be in effect
"only if the company has in mind collecting the information,
sorting it out and renting it. That is a sensitive enough area that
the more rigorous approaches are justified."
The new law does not require companies to obtain a parent's
permission to send a child information on a one-time basis, such as
a digital coupon for a video game.
The privacy law, enacted in October 1998, was prompted by an FTC
study last year of 1,400 Web sites, including one where children
were asked to give their names, addresses, e-mail addresses and
ages and say whether they ever received gifts of stocks, cash,
savings bonds or certificates of deposit.