As Congress prepares legislation to protect the privacy of adults online, a House committee head is asking whether a year-old law designed to protect children's privacy online went too far.
Meanwhile, a national advocate for children's online privacy contends that the children's law has not gone far enough.
That law -- the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) -- empowered the Federal Trade Commission to take action against Web sites that enticed children to provide personal information without their parents' consent.
At a subcommittee hearing this week, U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who heads the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, hinted that Congress might consider softening COPPA even as it toughens protection for adults.
The legislation was passed in 1999 as an outgrowth of studies by the Center for Media Education and the FTC that suggested children were being asked by Web site operators to provide a broad range of personal information about themselves and their families without parental approval.
The FTC rules, which took effect last April, required Web sites aimed at children under 13 to obtain parental permission to collect most types of personal information and to monitor chat rooms and bulletin boards to make sure children didn't disclose personal information there.
One witness at the hearing said complying with the law was expensive for Web site operators. Costs were estimated at $200,000 per year for one company and $100,000 for another. Overall, the witness said, the measures proved so costly that some companies shut down children's sites or refocused them at users over 13 years of age.
A study released in March by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Center for Public Policy found that most children's Web sites were failing to adhere to all COPPA requirements.
Rep. Tauzin said that while the law and the rules imposed some needed curbs, the expense of complying had created "unintended consequences" prompting some Web sites to abandon younger children.
"If ... private companies or nonprofits [have to] to eliminate beneficial products, such as crime prevention materials, have we done a good thing?" he said. "If teen-friendly sites -- that totally respect the privacy of users -- stop offering e-mail services to children, is that a good thing?"
Backers of COPPA charge that online companies are actually blaming the law for financial problems caused by the economy or inadequate business plans.
"It's often a scapegoat for dot-coms," said Katherine Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education. "The law is very modest. We have a good piece of law that has only been working for a year. We want to give it a chance to work."
Ms. Montgomery, whose group will release a report on the law's effectiveness, said that if anything, the rules need to be strengthened.
The questions about COPPA come as Rep. Tauzin and his committee's panel on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection push ahead with plans for legislation that would impose the first privacy requirements on all U.S. Web marketers.
Rep. Tauzin recently said he intends to move privacy legislation this year, though so far he has declined to say exactly what would be in any legislation. A year ago, most of the online privacy discussions in Congress occurred in the Senate, with the House taking relatively little action.
Ira Teinowitz, Advertising Age. April 5, 2001
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