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ICQ shuts out adults posing as children

In response to a tough new online child privacy law that went into effect two weeks ago, the instant messaging service is forcing members under the age of 13 to forfeit their accounts.

    It may be acceptable to lie about your age at a cocktail party, but don't try it with America Online's popular ICQ instant messaging service.

    In response to a tough new online child privacy law that went into effect two weeks ago, ICQ is forcing members under the age of 13 to forfeit their accounts.

    That's not just tough luck for real kids; the policy also is causing headaches for some adults who, for whatever reason, registered with fake birth dates. Those who tried to pass themselves off as younger than 13 have been shut out of ICQ and some other Web services until they can prove they're old enough to play without mom's or dad's permission.

    ICQ isn't the first service to kick members out of accounts to comply with the new privacy law. As previously reported, some MSN Hotmail members found themselves permanently shut out of their free email accounts after Microsoft enacted changes to comply with new regulations that mandate parental consent for Net users under the age of 13.

    "They should really just act their age, and they wouldn't have this problem," quipped a representative for the Federal Trade Commission, which is overseeing enforcement of the new law.

    The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was designed to protect preteens from falling victim to exploitative business practices on the Net. It prevents Web sites from collecting personal information from young visitors without first securing parental consent.

    The trouble is that many Web surfers deliberately enter wrong birth dates when first signing up for services--a practice that speaks to a Net culture that prefers to remain as anonymous as possible.

    To clear the confusion, a few companies are asking visitors for accurate birth dates to establish ages. Others, such as Yahoo, are asking each customer to provide a credit card number, full name, ZIP code, email address and country of residence--information some consumer advocates say is overreaching.

    "It doesn't make sense," said Jason Catlett, director of Junkbusters, a New Jersey-based privacy clearinghouse. "The information being sought is insufficient and excessive--insufficient for the purpose of age verification and excessive because it asks personal questions that have nothing to do with age."

    Yahoo representatives countered that the questions are not only allowable under the law, but are necessary to make sure people are who they say they are. They added that Yahoo's policy is better than the practices followed by some other companies, which simply shut out clients without first offering corrective measures.

    Just such an incident was recounted in an email forwarded to CNET News.com. According to the email, the ICQ user was warned yesterday that his account would be deleted in two days because he was younger than 13. The birth date recorded for the account was May 22, 1999, according to the email, and it could not be updated before the account expired.

    "Needless to say, I'm not impressed about losing dozens of contacts," the ICQ user wrote in an email. "(AOL) gets points for trying to warn me 48 hours in advance, but the numerous glitches in their systems that led to this mess is just ridiculous."

    AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein said the company has made "every effort to ensure that under-13 ICQ users are protected while leaving room for those who may have entered the wrong birth date a chance to correct the error."

    Users of AOL's other instant messaging service, AOL Instant Messenger, will not be affected by COPPA, as the service does not collect information covered by the law.

    Complications surrounding this law are bound to come up again, said David Steer, a spokesman for San Francisco Bay Area-based Truste, which dispenses privacy seals on the Internet.

    "It's not altogether surprising that some companies are overcompensating for COPPA," he said. "This is the first law of its kind for the Internet."

    This story was modified on Aug. 20, 2003.