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Bill to protect children's privacy

The White House's e-commerce policy and an influential legislator both say surfers should control their private data on the Net.

Online privacy is advancing on the government agenda as the White House's e-commerce policy and an influential legislator both say surfers should control their private data on the Net.

Following the Federal Trade Commission's second online privacy audit, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Massachusetts) introduced legislation on Friday that requires the FTC to establish rules regarding the collection of personal information in cyberspace.

Under Markey's bill, Internet service providers would also have to offer parents blocking software to keep their children from giving up personal or family information to online marketers.

"People have a right to exercise control over the collection and dissemination of their personal data, and parents must be given the tools and the legal rights to protect their kids from personal data pillaging and from objectionable content for minors," Markey said in a statement.

Known as the "clickerati" by some marketers, youngsters are often enticed by Web sites with prizes or special content to reveal their names, addresses, birth dates, and their parents' vital information, including salary and occupation. Usually, this is done without written parental permission.

With the Supreme Court's Communications Decency Act decision looming, Netizens may cringe at the thought of more federal regulation on the Internet.

But government intervention seems inevitable in the collection of data from minors online. The practice clearly struck a chord with FTC commissioners during its four-day privacy workshop earlier this month.

Moreover, the White House will put the brakes on its self-regulatory approach to global e-commerce when it comes to marketing to kids on the Net, according to sources. The president's Information Infrastructure Task Force will release the policy July 1, which proposes that regulation may be needed to ensure that children's digital privacy is protected.

The FTC did indicate that it would crack down on the aggregation and sale of children's data by wielding its power to halt unfair and deceptive business practices.

Still, Markey, a powerful member of the House Commerce Committee, wants Congress to force the agency to take action by passing his so-called Communications Privacy and Consumer Empowerment Act.

"One of things that is frustrating for people is that after holding these hearings in the past, the FTC has yet to take action. This would require them to actually do something," said Colin Crowell, an aide to the congressman.

"The legislation would require the FTC to [identify] the gaps between the industry's ability to self-regulate effectively and the ability of technology to empower parents, and to plug those holes with federal guidelines that protect consumers," Crowell added.

The Markey bill is a step in the right direction, according to the Center for Media Education, a fierce proponent of regulation to ban liquor and tobacco ads on the Net.

The CME also called on the FTC to protect children from aggressive online marketing by mandating parental permission when asking kids for data on the Net. The government should also require full disclosure of how the data will be used, the center added.

"Markey's bill is likely to help focus the House Commerce Committee more closely on online privacy issues," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the CME. "Even if the bill is just a placeholder, it signals a change. Congressman Markey is a powerful member of Congress; it's going to garner political attention."

The new legislation also contains an encryption provision that says the government can't restrict or place conditions on the sale of domestic encryption software.

Some privacy advocates applaud this provision but object to the bill's blocking software rules. Filtering technology is known for restricting access to smut but has been criticized for blocking information about AIDS and women's issues, for example.

"The 'censorware' provision is problematic," said David Sobel, legal counsel to the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"I don't see a problem with the government playing an educational role, but anything else raises the specter of censorship. Given the problems we've seen with blocking software, the government shouldn't be endorsing those products," he added.