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Commerce Dept. wants kids' rules

Commerce official Larry Irving discusses children's online safety and whether the Clinton administration will offer a solid solution.

LOS ANGELES--From the Internet's addressing system to Net telephony and e-commerce, the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is the Clinton administration's eyes and ears on the Net policy front.

Over the past year, the agency has been charged with leading a string of high-profile White House summits about the Net's youngest--and no doubt savviest--surfers. Along with the goal of hooking all children up to the Net, curbing entry to the Web's red-light districts and shielding minors' privacy from demographic-hungry marketers are the hot-button issues firmly planted on the NTIA's agenda.

At the latest White House meeting here today, the NTIA's assistant secretary for communications and information, Larry Irving, spoke to CNET NEWS.COM about his passion for the Net's ability to give a voice to people who until now couldn't be heard. He also discussed pressing online safety issues for children and whether the administration will offer a solution with teeth.

NEWS.COM: Aside from setting up the Commerce Department's privacy conference in two weeks, what is the NTIA's role in the online privacy debate?
Larry Irving: Our role is to work with Secretary [William Daley] as he prepares to send a report to the president on July 1 in regards to recommendations as to what we need to do in the online privacy area.

The FTC delivered a harsh report about online privacy last week, and recommended legislation to protect children's online privacy. In response to the FTC's findings, is self-regulation working?
Well, the FTC recommendations and report--I don't think anyone can look at that and not be a little dismayed both with regards to the privacy of children but also with regards to privacy efforts overall. [Companies] aren't doing enough to give Americans the level of security they want in regards to how their privacy rights are being protected.

The secretary said it very clearly that industry has to step up its self-regulatory efforts. It's not a threat, we have to let the president know. We said a year ago that we wanted self-regulation. The secretary has to send a report to the president to tell him if it is working. If he can't tell [President Clinton] in good conscience that it is--then he has to say that. Then the president would want to know, what do we need to protect the privacy of the American people?

When you layer over that that on October 28 the European Union directive goes into effect. And when you layer over that the fact a lot of our trading partners, particularly Japan, have said, 'We want to work with you on self-regulatory effort,' how could we go to them in good faith and say, 'Let's continue working on self-regulatory efforts' if we don't feel the efforts of our industries are significant or sincere?

Since privacy is one of the things inhibiting the development of the Net, if industry does not step up to the plate with a comprehensive, coherent, self-regulatory approach, we will be hurting the economy as well as the rights of the American people in terms of securing their privacy rights.

But should there be laws vs. principles to protect children's online privacy?
I don't think anybody could disagree with the statement that children are different, do need more protection, are more readily exploitable, and that children can't make the same judgments that adults do. So the rules have to be different. The president, vice president, and everybody in the administration has always said that.

Commerce Department official Larry Irving on privacy laws for children
We need overarching privacy principles, but we need specific privacy principles that protect the legitimate interest of parents to protect children.

But I don't think I want to get in front of what my boss [Secretary Daley] and [FTC] Chairman [Robert] Pitofsky are going to tell the president. But I do think that you do what you need to do to protect children and that may be a different model than the model you'd have for adults in a commercial marketplace.

Industry has had more than two years to put self-regulation to work in regards to online privacy since the FTC started its probe into the issue, and Clinton issued a warning last year--setting the check-up date for this July. Should industry have more time without regulation?
A lot of what's being asked for is not that difficult. We've been very careful and clear as to what it's going to take. After meetings around the country, the secretary of Commerce met with the most senior people we could find and talked about the need for self-regulatory efforts. After those meetings, the secretary was still not fully satisfied with the efforts.

We'll keep going back to them and say, "Do it." And if folks aren't going to do it, we have to look at what the alternatives are. We're not there yet. It's coming to a head.

What is the administration doing now with regard to children's access to adult-oriented or pornographic material?
Technology [to help deter access] is getting better, but it's never going to be perfect. I was talking to some people earlier about violent content on the Net--how children can find things about bombs. Most of what you can find on the Net about how to make a bomb is available somewhere in a library and, candidly, if your child is down in the basement making bombs, the Internet is probably not the biggest contributor to that problem.

Commerce Department official Larry Irving on content for minors
In regard to porn and pedophilia, parents need to take action. We need to have the industry figure out ways to protect our children, and that is happening. I don't know that we need the government as a censor.

What this conference is focused on is making people aware of the amazing amount of positive content on the Net and steering them toward that content. Should we try to find ways to make sure kids can't find bad stuff on the Net? Absolutely. What we have to do more is to give parents and children comfort that there is entertaining, engaging, good stuff on the Net--that also is important.

What is the most compelling reason children should be on the Net?
Traditionally if you wanted to learn something about Native Americans it was filtered by someone who was not a Native American. If you wanted to learn about black history or what was going on with Latinos, it was not necessarily in the voice of that community.

The Internet gives anybody in the world the opportunity to find out about anything. And in many cases, it's themselves. The Internet is great for giving kids connectivity to their homeland. It's also been great for kids telling their own story in their own languages from their own cultures. People talk about the Net being a window. And the interesting thing about a window is that you can look through a window. But if you open that window you can also shout out and tell people about yourself.

Commerce Department Official Larry Irving on Net telephony
The Internet allows people to tell their own story. People that went through the civil rights movement are archiving their experiences on the Net. People who survived the Holocaust--and they are increasingly few--they're leaving their experiences on the Net for future generations. It's there every day for anybody who cares to find it. That is powerful.