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White House sets children's summit

The June 10-12 Digital Media Content for Children and Teens conference in Los Angeles will focus on various issues surrounding children online.

Young surfers are the focus of yet another White House summit convening next month.

The June 10-12 Digital Media Content for Children and Teens conference in Los Angeles 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 three-day event will focus on the latest Web content targeted at minors, improving and affording better access to education technology, and the privacy and ethical issues that surround marketing online to children and teens.

"The purpose of the conference is to identify concrete action by private companies, nonprofit organizations, educators, government, and kids that will enrich online learning for America's children and teens," according to materials for the event, which is sponsored by America Online, MCI Communications, and The Learning Company.

Along with keynote speaker Commerce Department Secretary William Daley, Vice President Al Gore is scheduled to speak via satelite, and the conference will be Webcast.

Approximately 14 percent of U.S. children and teenagers log onto the Internet, according to a fall 1997 study by Find/SVP.

"We have long believed that this medium has extraordinary potential to educate and entertain kids and teens," noted AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose. "We're excited to explore the value of content that is out there."

The surge in minors' online activity has marketers and digital publishing houses salivating, but with the allure of young consumers comes heightened regulatory attention.

"This is an important meeting to address how new media can effectively serve children as citizens, and not end up just offering virtual Saturday morning cartoons," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education.

A panel moderated by the CME will discuss advertising to children on the Net. "Marketers have to approach the commercialization of new media for children in the most responsible fashion," Chester added. "The first step is supporting the CME's position on protecting the privacy rights of children."

The upcoming conference follows the Clinton administration's winter Children's Internet Summit, where participants debated how to best shield minors from adult-oriented online content such as pornography or promotions for alcohol.

"That conference was focused on some of the dangers of children going online. The June conference will focus on why we want children to be online--because there is a lot of quality content online," said Kelly Levy, who is coordinating the event for the NTIA.

The online industry showed up in force at the 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.

But some children's advocacy groups wrote the summit off as a PR stunt and called for strict legislation to safeguard children's personal information on the Net, for example. Civil liberties groups emphasized parents' role in setting up boundaries for children. They also evaluated industry proposals regarding minors' access to online pornography, because strong voluntary standards often help to stave off laws that can threaten free speech such as the now-defunct Communications Decency Act.

In addition, the NTIA and the Public Utility Law Project of New York held a conference on the obstacles, progress, and benefits of connecting everyone in the United States to the Net.

Next month's children's conference won't tackle the same breadth of controversial issues as the other summits.

But a separate NTIA event now planned for June will take a hard look at the collection of Net users' personally identifiable or sensitive financial information from Web sites and electronic database companies.

The Clinton administration will use the event to 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 or regulation--to insure online privacy.

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