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Summit deals with Net privacy issues

A Los Angeles conference meant to cover children's content online also focuses on privacy issues following a harsh FTC report.

LOS ANGELES--On the heels of a stinging federal online privacy report, today's White House meeting about creating better Net content for children also is turning to more sobering issues, such as how to best protect young surfers' sensitive information.

The Digital Media Content for Children and Teens conference in Los Angeles through June 12 is being held by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the University of Southern California's Egg Company 2 Annenberg Incubator Project (EC2).

The two-day event is still focusing on the latest Web content targeted at minors and improving and affording better access to education technology and Net sites. But with last week's release of the Federal Trade Commission's harsh report about children's sites' data collection practices, the conference is now highlighting privacy issues.

"We hope companies will be cognitive of the special vulnerability of [children who are] online--especially when it comes to marketing," Larry Irving, assistant secretary for communications and information at the NTIA, told the crowd here.

"Corporations have to be responsible about the type of marketing they do to kids and the private information they collect," he added.

The FTC recommended to Congress to draft legislation requiring Web sites to get parental permission before collecting information--such as children's names, email and postal addresses, phone numbers, ages, Social Security numbers, and other details, including how much money their parents make per year.

Of the 212 children's sites surveyed by the FTC, 89 percent collected personal details from youngsters, but only 7 percent promised to notify parents of data collection practices.

It is reports like these that have online privacy dominating the Clinton administration's Net agenda this summer.

Echoing the Clinton Administration's ongoing position, Irving emphasized the need to create quality educational and entertainment content for children and to provide Net access to all schoolchildren.

But he added that those contributions will be meaningless if parents are afraid to let their children surf the Net.

Parents must be encouraged to use technology to safeguard their children from harmful content and to prevent them from sharing personal information while online, he said, and companies must adopt policies to protect young surfers as well.

"It is very important that we provide parents with the tools to protect their kids so the government doesn't [try to] censor the Net," he said.

However, he continued, "You can't tell kids, 'Don't go to X, Y and Z,' and then not give them somewhere else to play [on the Net]." The Commerce Department plans to hold a conference on the issue June 23 and June 24, and on Monday released guidelines for effective self-regulatory privacy practices.

Federal Trade Commissioner Mozelle Thompson is expected to discuss online privacy tomorrow, and Vice President Al Gore is scheduled to speak via satellite. They had been slated to speak today.

Companies such as America Online, an event sponsor, will no doubt remind regulators about voluntary industry practices to protect children's privacy. For example, AOL and Microsoft have pledged not to collect data from preteens without their parents' permission.

The industry in general is trying to stave off attempts at government regulation by offering new ways to self-regulate. They are now redoubling their efforts to convince the government they can self-regulate, especially in light of the critical FTC report.

Today, Disney Online president Jake Winebaum talked about how the media giant is working to shield young "Websters'" privacy.

"Until these issues are addressed...the vast majority of families will not go online," Winebaum said during a keynote speech. "The [FTC report] should be a call to action for companies to adopt policies like those at Disney."

Winebaum claimed that Disney exceeds the FTC's recommendations issued last week.

Disney's online privacy policy states that Disney will send email messages to parents or guardians when children younger than 16 register. Parents then have the option to delete registration. "No information collected from children 16 years of age or under is used for any marketing or promotional purposes whatsoever, either inside or outside Disney," the policy states.

The online industry showed up in force at a December summit to pitch voluntary self-regulatory guidelines and new technologies to curb minors' access to adult material. The government promised to gear up its crackdown on alleged Net predators.

The Clinton administration is relying in these events to help seal its strategy for dealing with a strict European electronic privacy directive that goes into effect this fall. Like the children's summit, the private sector is once again expected to announce voluntary efforts--in place of regulation--to insure online privacy.

The range of ideas exchanged at all four conferences also will be incorporated into Commerce's report on electronic commerce and online issues that is due to Clinton by July 1.