Amazon keeps kids' data under wraps, regulators say

FTC rejects allegations that e-tailer's toy store targets children and permits them to post reviews without parent's consent.

Amazon.com's virtual toy store is perfectly legal because it doesn't ask children to type in personal information, federal regulators have decided.

A letter from the Federal Trade Commission dated Nov. 24 rejected allegations from advocacy groups that said the online retailer violated the law by targeting its toy store at children under 13 and permitting them to post product reviews without a parent's permission.

The FTC letter, signed by associate director Mary Engle, concludes that the toy site is "not directed to children" and no government action is necessary.

Under a 1998 law called the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, it is unlawful for Web sites "directed to children" to collect personal information from minors under 13 without an adult's consent.

"We think they simply misapplied the law," said Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). "A Web site can have more than one purpose, but we argued that (the toy site) was primarily directed at children."

Amazon's toy store, which is the online storefront for partner Toys "R" Us, lists toys by categories, ages and brands. It also features commentary directed at older customers, such as a baby registry for expectant parents, a store locator and a solicitation to "Make a donation and make a child smile!"

EPIC and other advocacy groups including the anti-marketing group Commercial Alert and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility filed a complaint with the FTC in April 2003. The complaint said: "Amazon clearly directs the Toy Store portion of its Web site at children" by using "brightly colored tabs" and "colorful and childlike fonts."

But the FTC rejected that argument, ruling that Amazon has always said the site is for adults and "the vocabulary and other language used on these Web sites appears to be directed to adults rather than children."

This is not the first time EPIC has tried to take a company to task before the FTC on privacy grounds. EPIC and Junkbusters unsuccessfully railed against Amazon in a letter to government regulators in October 2002, but did manage to use the FTC to force Microsoft to rework its Passport authentication system.

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