Lawmakers examine privacy bill

A Senate subcommittee considers a bill that would require sites to get parental permission before gathering private data from children.

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Web sites that gather personal details from children came under scrutiny once again today when lawmakers met over a bill that would require data collectors to get parental permission before accepting private information from preteens.

The Senate Commerce communications subcommittee held a hearing to debate Sen. Richard Bryan's (D-Nevada) Children's Online Privacy Protection Act .

In the wake See related roundup: 
FTC's privacy crackdown of the Federal Trade Commission report about many Web sites' reckless personal data collection practices, the bill would mandate that sites clearly disclose if they collect minors' physical contact information, Social Security number, or details about their habits and hobbies, for example.

The sites also would have to state how the data would be used and whether it would be shared with third parties, and would have to give parents the chance to review their children's data or refuse its collection altogether.

Most significantly, if a child is under 13 years old, the legislation says the site will first have to get a parent's OK before collecting the sensitive information. The bill calls for the FTC to crack down on violators.

It's no surprise that FTC chairman Robert Pitofsky endorsed the legislation during the hearing.

"The enactment of legislation such as [the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act] would provide uniform privacy protections that should protect children online and provide parents and their children with greater confidence in using the Internet," Pitofsky stated in his prepared testimony.

After two years of investigation, the FTC in June finally called for legislation to protect young children's online privacy.

A month later, See related special feature: 
A look at the FTC Vice President Al Gore made the same call, which was accompanied by a group of major Net companies promising to adopt the policy under a self-regulatory regime proposed by the Online Privacy Alliance.

Still, Pitofsky has made clear in the past that new laws should be passed by the end of the year if self-regulatory efforts fail to protect the privacy of Net users of all ages.

The Commerce Department, which wants online consumers to be confident about their privacy so e-commerce will flourish, echoed the FTC's challenge.

However, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act encourages the online industry to continue implementing voluntary privacy policies to stave off prosecution under the bill.

"We believe that under this bill the commission can play an important role in developing flexible industry-specific standards," Pitofsky concluded in his testimony.

Although the legislation has been applauded by many privacy advocates, some are concerned that young people will be hindered from getting information about tough topics--such as advice about sex--if the site is forced to get parental permission before exchanging information with a preteen.

For example, if a 13-year-old girl wanted to get information about safe sex from a health care Web site, her parents might need to be informed first.

Others, however, would like to see broader online privacy protections for all Net users, such as people retaining the ability to surf anonymously at any site.

The FTC's critical report about Web sites' data collection practices stated that of 1,400 sites examined by the agency in March, just 14 percent informed visitors of their information-collection practices. Of the 212 children's sites surveyed, 89 percent collected personal details from youngsters, but only 23 percent advised children to get permission before giving up their name, address, and other unique details.

Even so, a scant 7 percent of the children's sites promised to notify parents of data collection practices.

At least one company has already been ordered by the FTC to get parental consent before collecting private information from preteens. In August, the agency settled its complaint against online community GeoCities for allegedly misrepresenting its reasons for collecting persona data from visitors.