AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said Monday that as of last week, customers under the age of 18 cannot shop on AOL with partner stores, including auctioneer eBay and retailer Amazon.com. Previously, children ages 13 to 17 who signed onto the service with a parentally controlled screen name could buy products and services with a credit card at AOL partner stores.
While many of the products may have been acceptable to parents, teens were also able to find and purchase alcohol, tobacco and pornographic material.
"Our partners provide a huge range of products, of overwhelmingly quality goods...but there are potentially some objectionable products that parents may wish their children not see when they are using the AOL service," AOL's Graham said. "By blocking the child's access to the shopping area at this time, we hope it would encourage more parental involvement."
According to Graham, about 16 million members log onto the service with a parentally controlled screen name. While not all those users may shop, the teen ban could still crimp AOL?s revenue just as the holiday shopping season heats up. AOL, the online unit of media giant AOL Time Warner, does not have plans to lift the ban.
The drastic move plugs a potential leak in AOL's highly touted parental controls, which have become a central selling point for AOL as it battles with Microsoft's MSN service.
Each company introduced new Web access software last month with an emphasis on parental controls. MSN, for example, features advertisements that depict its signature butterfly shielding a child's eyes from a naked woman on a billboard.
For its part, MSN says it lets parents block shopping sites from their kids. Parul Shah, MSN product manager, said MSN 8 allows parents to designate content filter settings, first according to their child's age group and then by choosing which of more than 50 content categories their child can access. By using these setting parents can block shopping destinations completely, or restrict certain sections.
AOL, which pioneered the development of parental controls in 1994, has 35 million members worldwide, compared with about 9 million for the younger MSN.
AOL in recent weeks received letters from people concerned about the ability of teens to purchase items such as pornography and tobacco on its service. One such letter, seen by CNET News.com, was sent Oct. 29 to AOL Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons and Chairman Steven Case.
"The rollout of AOL 8.0, with heavy promotion of the 'Parental Controls,' has been labeled critical to AOL's success. So it is almost inconceivable that AOL would at the same time allow any child with a credit card to purchase pornography and tobacco through the AOL Store--undercutting the very essence of the image the Parental Controls are trying to create," according to the letter, whose sender asked to remain anonymous.
Graham said the decision to shut off access was partly fueled by member suggestions and the concern that children could access objectionable products from partner stores. He added that the company considers credit cards to be an acceptable screening mechanism for determining parental consent.
By default, teens could not use a parent's credit card on file with the service--parents had to specifically allow for that ability. Children 12 and under have never been able to access partner shopping sites on the service, Graham said.
Illustrating its commitment to parental controls, Graham said the company plans to introduce a new feature called "Guardian" in coming months that allows parents to receive an e-mail summarizing a child's online activities, including Web sites visited and conversations held over instant messenger and e-mail.
One child safety activist both praised and criticized AOL for its action.
"I'm glad that they realized it's important to restrict this kind of access to kids; children should not be able to buy alcohol, tobacco or pornography on the Internet," said Mark Klaas, an advocate of child safety who runs the site BeyondMissing.com.
"But the hypocrisy of their AOL 8.0 parental software controls were on the verge of being exposed, and that prompted the change."