FTC: Consumer Privacy Comments Concerning The Consumer Union Publisher of Consumer Reports--P954807
April 15, 1997
CONSUMER PRIVACY 1997
These are comments and a request to testify, submitted by Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. in the above-captioned matter. Resumes of the two suggested witnesses are attached.
Consumers Union (CU) addresses some of the issues that are the subject of the Commission's inquiry in two articles in the just-published May 1997 issue of Consumer Reports. Attached for the record are copies of the articles "Is Your Kid Caught Up In the Web?" and "Is Your Computer Spying On You," both of which appear in that issue.
The first of these two articles reflects CU testing and evaluation of parental control computer software. In addition to the information contained in the article, the CU editor who prepared this article will soon conduct additional tests and evaluation of these software packages to determine whether they prevent children from providing their name, telephone number and/or address over the telephone and to determine whether they perform as claimed in their advertising and/or on their packaging. The second of these articles addresses the issue of the undisclosed commercial capture of information about visitors to popular internet web sites and the lack of control that such persons may have over the capture and use of this information.
We request that the editor of these two articles, Jeffrey Fox, an Assistant Editor of Consumer Reports, be listed to testify at the scheduled June hearings to address issues related to sessions 2 and 3 of the hearings.
Further, CU is conducting a survey on children and the internet for a fall issue of our children's magazine, Zillions. This survey, its analysis and the resulting editorial material will be prepared under the direction of Charlotte Baecher, Consumers Union's Education Director. We request that she be listed to testify at the June hearings to address issues related to session 3 of the hearings.
Blocking software and children's online
Various technologies are being considered to protect the growing number of children who go online. One already in the marketplace is blocking software (also known as filtering software) designed to let parents control their children's online activities. We know of at least 11 such products.
These products' features, which vary from brand to brand, include the ability to prevent access to inappropriate Web sites, discussion groups, chat rooms, as well as to certain software and data files; limit the time spent online; and monitor online activities by keeping a detailed log, called an audit trial, of kids' online activities.
In our recent report, Is Your Kid Caught Up in the Web? (Consumer Reports, May 1997, p. 27), we tested four well-known products' ability to block access to inappropriate Web sites. We found none of them to be totally effective in blocking such access and concluded that a determined, computer-savvy child might very well be able to circumvent them.
1Consumers Union is a nonprofit membership organization chartered in 1936 under the laws of the State of New York to provide consumers with information, education and counsel about goods, services, health, and personal finance; and to initiate and cooperate with individual and group efforts to maintain and enhance the quality of life for consumers. Consumers Union's income is solely derived from the sale of Consumer Reports, its other publications and from noncommercial contributions, grants and fees. In addition to reports on Consumers Union's own product testing, Consumer Reports with approximately 5 million paid circulation, regularly, carries articles on health, product safety, marketplace economics and legislative, judicial and regulatory actions which affect consumer welfare. Consumer Union's publications carry no advertising and receive no commercial support.
101 Truman Avenue Yonkers, New York, 10703-1057 (914) 378-2000 Fax (914) 378-2900
To protect privacy, some blocking products are also designed to prevent a child from disclosing his or her name, address, and other personal information online. To use this feature, a parent enters into the software any name, address, or other phrase they don't want their child sending out of the home. When a child tries to send a prohibited word, the software removes it or replaces it with meaningless characters. At the parent's option, the software may also issue a warning or shut down the application the child was running.
To see how much protection the privacy feature actually offers, we installed and tested three well-known products that have it-Cyber Patrol, Cybersitter, and Net Nanny.
Overview of the privacy feature test conditions:
Overview of test methods:
Overall privacy test results:
Conclusions on blocking software:
Notes an individual products:
KIDS' INTERNET EXPERIENCES
June 10, 1997
* ZILLIONS is a bi-monthly magazine for kids 9 to 14, from Consumers Union (CU), publisher of Consumer Reports. CU is a nonprofit organization. Its publications carry no outside advertising. Results of this survey will be published in the September/October 1997 issue of ZILLIONS.
This survey was designed as a "tag-along" survey to accompany the Nov./Dec. 1998 Zillions readership survey, which was mailed on Nov. 4, 1996 to a sample of 1,200 Zillions subscribers. (Parents were informed by postcard one week before the survey mailed. The children's anonymity was strictly protected: The survey did not ask for their names or addresses.) Kids were asked whether they had gone online; if so, how they had accessed the Internet, what they did, where they went, what they enjoyed. In addition to asking about phone lines and sharing computer time, it asked about blocking software, parental restrictions, and problems "with other users." If kids had problems with other users, they were asked to explain in their own words, which were later transcribed.
More than 90 kids - nearly one-third of those who went online - had problems with other users often or occasionally.
While most problems had to do with stealing passwords and profanity, several were disturbing indicators of inappropriate advances to kids on the Internet. Here are descriptions of some problems, in the kids' own words:
(2) Kids are visiting commercial sites quite frequently.
Visiting product/company Web Sites was reported by 33% of the Internet-users over the seven days before the survey. Although we did not ask about individual sites or what kids did there, we do know kids are attracted to commercial sites.
(3) Blocking software had no impact an whether a kid experienced problems with other online users.
There was no correlation in our survey between the reported presence of blocking software on respondents' computers (and/or parental restrictions on sites they could visit) and respondents who said they had problems with other users. The user-problems cited underscore the fact that people online are able to locate and target kids on the Internet.
(4) Blocking software was not widely used.
While 60% of respondents reported parental restrictions ("sites your parents won't let you visit"), only 20% said there was blocking software on their computers at home. The survey subjects were Zillions subscribers, not kids in general. As magazine subscribers, they typically come from higher-income, better educated homes than the population at large. One would expect such homes to demonstrate higher-than-average parental supervision and restrictions, and greater likelihood of being able to afford and install blocking software. The fact that only 20% reported blocking software indicates minimal implementation.
Market Research Findings
Blocking software is not widely available in
Of the 10 stores in Burbank/Glendale/Los Angeles, California, nine didn't have any of the programs available. One store carried Net Nanny. Seven of the 11 stores in Tigard/Lake Oswego/Portland, Oregon, didn't have any of the programs. The remaining four carried Microsoft Plus! for Kids. None of the 11 stores in Richland Hills/Southlake/Grapevine/Arlington, Texas, carried any of the programs (three used to, but had been out of stock for several months). The Texas shopper called an additional 10 software/computer companies listed in the Yellow Pages, but none of them had any of the programs, either. Finally, none of the 15 stores visited in Schaumburg/Arlington Heights/Rolling Meadows/Mount Prospect, Illinois, carried any of the products. Most of those stores could not suggest an alternative, nor could they special order the software.
To sum up: Of the 47 stores visited, only five carried blocking software - four of them in Oregon. The four programs we shopped for are available for downloading via the Web. Cyber Patrol is available free as a download to subscribers of AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy; the other three are available for purchase. Judging from the fact that blocking software was not reported by 80% of the kids our survey, it is not being widely used. Whether parents are more comfortable purchasing blocking software from a store (where they get a diskette and printed documentation), or whether they are uncomfortable purchasing online, dissemination of blocking software to date appears to be inadequate.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS:
The disturbing problems Zillions readers reported with other online users indicates that there is still much to be done to make cyberspace safe for children. Reported attempts to steal kids' passwords and send them pornographic messages underline the need for continued vigilance and action by law enforcement agencies.
CU's research to date has focused on kids' cyberspace experiences and whether software adequately blocks online requests for personal information from kids. This research addresses only part of the issue of online privacy and kids, but it raises real concerns about problems kids are encountering online and the adequacy of blocking software as a solution.
When addressing online privacy protections for kids, a number of concerns come into play. Children can't be expected to have the experience or maturity to know when inquiries are inappropriate, what the consequences of giving out information may be, and what problems and dangers may lurk in seemingly innocent online activities. Children are open and impressionable, likely to enjoy online interactions without critical judgment - to enjoy fun animals, for instance, whether they're at a nature Web site or one sponsored by a brewery. Because this new medium can "narrowcast" rather than broadcast, and because it can exploit information kids give and make adult supervision difficult, children need special protections. Lines need to be drawn for children where they might not be for adults.
The fundamental protection needed would prevent the online collection of personal information about any child (without a parent's prior informed permission), and use of it to go back to that child with "tailored" information or solicitations of any kind. Targeting children in this way takes unfair advantage of their fascination with computers and getting mail (and probably also counts on their lack of critical judgment).
Online protection for kids needs to:
Children are a special audience. Protecting their privacy online requires all players to put children's interests ahead of marketing interests. This may make finding a "market solution" more difficult, and puts responsibility on the FTC to make sure that children are truly protected.