Web sites that attempt to obtain personal information from children without first getting parental permission could be prosecuted under federal online privacy legislation that was pushed forward today.
The Senate Commerce Committee passed an amended version of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which would require data collectors to get a guardian's OK before accepting private information via the Net from children under age 12.
Sen. Richard Bryan's (D-Nevada) bill must still clear the full Senate. A similar bill, the Children's Privacy Protection and Parental Empowerment Act, additionally requires the Federal Trade Commission to draft rules for commercial Web sites to follow when collecting personal information from young children.
But the bill passed by the Senate committee today dropped some requirements for collecting data from teenagers.
"They took out that sites would have to inform parents and let them opt-out before collecting information from 13- to 16-year-olds because there were some First Amendment concerns," according to Pia Pialorsi, a spokeswoman for the committee.
Groups such as the Center for Democracy and Technology had worried that teenagers would be afraid to get information about sensitive topics, such as birth control, because their parents might be informed by a Web site if the site required the young person's mailing address.
"We are pleased with the changes and it is a step in the right direction to get the FTC activated on privacy," Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology said today.
At a subcommittee hearing last week, commercial site owners conceded that some laws could be needed to protect preteens' privacy. However, Arthur Sackler, vice president for law and public policy at Time Warner, testified that it's very difficult to get parental permission and that a mandate could hurt business.
Congress is mobilizing to shield young surfers' private information in the wake of an FTC report that detailed many Web sites' reckless personal data collection practices and called for laws to protect preteens.
Bryan's bill would mandate that sites clearly disclose if they collect information such as minors' physical contact information, Social Security numbers, or details about their habits and hobbies. The sites also would have to state how the data would be used and whether it would be shared with third parties.
Most significantly, if a child is under 13, the site will have to give a parent or guardian a chance to review sensitive personal data and approve its contents before collection, or to refuse collection altogether. The bill calls for the FTC to undertake enforcement.
The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act simultaneously encourages the online industry to continue implementing voluntary privacy policies to stave off future prosecution.
Industry has continued to insist that self-regulatory efforts have a better chance of curbing unscrupulous data collection from children. But the FTC has warned that if sites don't disclose their data collection practices to all Net users and allow people refuse to give up data, then the agency would support broader "fair information" collection laws for the Net.