Comments of the KidsCom Company Concerning Consumer Privacy - P954807
Please consider this a formal request on behalf of The KidsCom Company to participate in the
Federal Trade Commission's upcoming Workshop on Consumer Information Privacy, specifically Session Three with regards to children's personal information.
Attached you will find our written responses to the questions and issues raised in your Invitation to Comment concerning Information Collection and Use, Self-regulation, Technological Developments and Unsolicited Commercial E-mail.
You will find that The KidsCom Company, publisher of the international children's Web site KidsCom (www.kidscom.com), takes seriously the concerns of children's privacy and on-line safety. As detailed in the following pages, KidsCom and The KidsCom Company have taken significant steps to protect and educate children while also informing parents of on-line activities.
We look forward to the opportunity to further discuss these steps and share our perspectives with the Commission at the June workshop.
Should you need any additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Comments on Children's On-line Privacy
Overview and Background
The KidsCom Company publishes the international children's Web site KidsCom (www.kidscom.com). The site, one of the first children-focused sites on the Internet, was launched in February 1995 by SpectraCom Inc. In June 1996, The KidsCom Company was incorporated and took sole responsibility for the production and maintenance of KidsCom. The KidsCom Company and SpectraCom, while being owned by the same individual, operate as separate companies with distinctly separate staffs.
Besides its wealth of positive attention, KidsCom has the distinction of being the first children's Web site to be the subject of a formal complaint to the Commission. The complaint was filed on May 13, 1996. As of April 14, 1997, the Commission continues to review the complaint and has not taken any formal action.
The KidsCom Company takes strong issue with many of the points raised in the complaint because they were inaccurate or assumed malicious intent. But taking the initiative to educate ourselves in these issues, KidsCom has used the opportunity to learn from experts in this area and proactively move toward finding solutions in the last year to create a truly educational and entertaining place for children on the Internet. A place that is, above all, a safe haven for them from manipulative marketing practices and unwarranted invasions of privacy.
According to the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus Inc., KidsCom is the paragon children's site on the Internet for on-line safety and privacy.
KidsCom was one of the first children's sites to educate children with on-line safety tips (a move that many other sites have now mimicked). KidsCom was one of the first sites to encourage children to seek out their parent's permission before putting information on-line and has come up with creative ways to involve parents in their children's on-line activities. KidsCom is one of perhaps only two sites on the Internet that takes the extra step of attempting to notify parents when their children have registered with the site. And KidsCom is the only site on the Internet with The Ad Bug, a character that continuously appears everywhere on the site there is advertising, clearly drawing a line for kids between advertising and editorial content.
It is also important to point out that The KidsCom Company also has never sold or rented the information collected in the KidsCom registration area. Any information collected from any surveys on the site is only released in aggregate form.
The KidsCom Company wants to ensure children a home on the Internet where they can do exactly what our motto promises: "Play Smart, Stay Safe and Have Fun."
Information Collection and Use
3.1 KidsCom does not require children to be registered to visit the site. Unregistered children have access to virtually all areas of the site. However, if children wish to post content for the site, contact other children around the world, chat on-line or accumulate points for participation, they must complete the registration form.
Registration information requested includes a child's full name, birth date, hometown, e-mail address, parent's e-mail address and other facts that children have asked be included. (See Attachment A) .
In the registration information collection area, KidsCom does not ask for home street addresses, telephone numbers, names of schools or any other information that could jeopardize children's safety.
The registration information is used for three reasons:
We use the information to connect kids with other children around the world for our unique Key Pal program. The match that is found, based on individual interests and hobbies, is returned with only geographic information about the potential Key Pal, an e-mail address and some of those fun facts the kids have asked us to include. This information is given out one child at a time, thus avoiding someone trying to get a large amount of names at once.
Because our site allows users to write content - not just read it - we need to have some user information as a security measure. If inappropriate or questionable material is posted on the site, we need to be able to track down the individual and, if necessary, block them from posting content on the site.
We use the registration area to create kid accounts to track points kids accumulate on the site. These points can be earned by playing educational games, coming to the site, answering any optional surveys in our KidsKash Questions area, and by getting their parents, teachers and friends involved on-line. The points can be cashed in at the KidsCom Loot Locker, a collection of things contributed by a variety of companies.
Parent's e-mail addresses are collected for the purpose of immediately informing parents when their children have registered on the site. (See Attachment B)
KidsCom does not release, sell or in any way provide the names or identities of KidsCom kids or their parents to any kids marketers. We do not now and we never have.
Even after they have registered, throughout the site children are encouraged to seek their parent's permission before posting any content or participating in on-line chat. Children also are told never to provide personal information in publicly posted areas. Furthermore, KidsCom has not ever and does not currently collect any clickstream data of its visitors.
E-mail is sent to registered children to inform them of new things on the site and about other KidsCom activities, such as KidsCom On Location where we visit kids around the world. Each e-mail message to children includes clear instructions on how to opt out of receiving any future KidsCom e-mail messages.
3.2 KidsCom does not collect, compile, sell or use children's personally identifying information for marketing on-line or marketing research.
All information is used only in the aggregate, which we believe protects children's privacy because they are never individually identifiable.
3.3 KidsCom releases information collected from children only in the aggregate form because we believe there are significant privacy risks involved in releasing information any other way.
Conversely, there are great benefits from providing information in the aggregate. Children's responses help us guide the development of KidsCom's content and help us understand the issues that are on kids' minds. It allows us to create new avenues of creativity for children that is more appropriately targeted to their age group and interests. It also provides an opportunity for educators and sociologists to better understand how children are using this medium and gives kids marketers insights on how to improve their products or services.
Sale of aggregate information also helps us fund the educational content development of the site and allows us to keep the site as a free service to families and schools worldwide from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
3.4 We are not familiar with any surveys or other research data that currently exist on parent's perceptions, knowledge and expectations covered in this section. However, it would be possible to do such as survey with the parents of the children registered on KidsCom who are willing to participate in research.
3.5 The daily proliferation of Web sites makes it difficult to quantify how many children's commercial Web sites exist, let alone count those that collect, compile, sell or use children's personal information. As a company, we have not endeavored to do this so we do not have statistically reliable data. However, from our review of other children's sites, there are many sites now that are collecting children's personal information through registration forms or clickstream data.
KidsCom was one of the first sites - and to our knowledge still one of the few - to inform parents that their children have registered with the site. Within seconds of a child's registration, an e-mail message is automatically sent to parents informing them of the registration and explaining the site to them (see Attachment B). Also, children are encouraged, through the offering of a large amount of site points, to get their parent's signature on a parental permission slip that explains our practices. Those slips are then mailed or faxed to us for point credit. (See Attachment C) We also have developed content for parents as another way to get them involved with what their kids are doing online. In this area there is an informational letter informing parents of the practices of KidsCom (See Attachment D).
There is a measurable financial cost in implementing such notification that includes headcount and overheads costs for collecting, processing and updating permission slips.
The benefits of such notification, however, are significant. It allows parents the opportunity to be informed of their children's on-line activities. In the KidsCom notification e-mail, parents also are given the opportunity to request by return e-mail that their children's registration be removed.
The benefit to KidsCom is equally significant. It is important to us to regularly encourage parents to become involved in their children's Internet surfing. All the creative approaches to inform parents including the parent notification e-mail, the parental permission form and the parent's informational letter - open a line of communication and has had the intended effect of getting parents and children to sit side-by-side at the computer.
3.6 KidsCom gives parents the opportunity to remove their children's registration from or limit their contact through the site at any time. This is explained in the letter sent to parents when their children register. (See Attachment B)
The financial costs of such an opportunity are measurable in that it requires personnel to manually change the records. We firmly believe, however, that parents should be the ultimate decision-maker in determining what their children are doing on-line. The only other costs might be a lost opportunity cost for the families in not being allowed to participate in some activities on the site. Without registration information, we are not able to allow them for security reasons to share with other children on-line, post content or earn points for their activities on the site.
3.7 We are not aware of the practices of other sites. On KidsCom, parents and children can request to review their own registration information and may make changes to it.
3.8 KidsCom owns and maintains all computer equipment used in the registration process so all information obtained is protected by The KidsCom Company's security to ward against unauthorized access, alterations or dissemination of the data. This is done with a series of programs and system set-ups. To further detail in this public forum the security measures implemented, however, could ultimately jeopardize the security of the information.
3.9 We do not have enough knowledge of others' practices to make an informed comparison.
3.10 We do not have enough knowledge to make an informed comment. However, it is important to note that schools, libraries, children's museums and other public institutions are important to participants. They provide Internet access to children who are from socioeconomic backgrounds where a home computer with Internet access is not affordable.
3.11 One significant set of industry guidelines has emerged since the June 1996 Workshop. Those guidelines, scheduled to be released in the coming days, were developed by the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus Inc., with the advice and direction of several other organizations and companies, including The KidsCom Company.
KidsCom is the first - and to our knowledge only - site to meet all the recommendations as outlined in the CARU guidelines for collecting information from children.
Once the guidelines are formally announced, we expect other major sites to follow KidsCom's lead in embracing and implementing them.
3.12 Since the site was launched in February 1995, KidsCom has striven to be a safe place for children to learn and interact with each other. In the last year, we have intensified that effort, making on-line safety our paramount concern.
KidsCom was one of the first children's sites to educate children with on-line safety tips (a move that many other sites have now mimicked). KidsCom was one of the first sites to encourage children to seek out their parent's permission before registering and again before posting content. KidsCom is one of perhaps only two sites on the Internet that takes the extra step of attempting to notify parents when their children have registered with the site. And KidsCom is the only site on the Internet with The Ad Bug, a character that continuously appears everywhere on the site there is advertising.
KidsCom's efforts meet and exceed the principles outlined in the Joint Statement on Children's Marketing Issues presented by the Direct Marketing Association and the Interactive Services Association. KidsCom's effort also are predominantly consistent with the intent of the Proposed Guidelines presented by the Center for Media Education and Consumer Federation of America.
3.13 The existing and proposed guidelines we are familiar with do take into account the worldwide reach of the Internet. Communication standards, including mail delivery, are not consistent around the world. Reaching parents or children by mail in one country may be impossible for another.
Some suggestions that parental permission be obtained using a subscriber-model also is not practical in a worldwide marketplace. Implementing such an exclusive plan would for a vast majority of children in socioeconomically depressed households, limit their access to the educational and enriching content of the Internet. That would in turn widen the gap in the world of the haves and the have-nots.
Additionally, the current collection of clickstream data collection by some children's Web sites is an issue that needs to be addressed. Many adults, let alone children, do not understand the concept. Current technology does not do a good enough job of giving them the ability to reach content without be subjected to cookies.
KidsCom has added a number of participation prompts instead of using cookies and clickstreaming. While this makes for more work for the children, we believe it's currently a better option than using cookies.
We believe that KidsCom's approach to on-line safety adequately addresses children's on-line privacy issues. However, we fully recognize that the Internet is a fast-changing environment. What works today may not work tomorrow. We continuously review our policies and procedures and appreciate the need to constantly be aware of adjusting them should new circumstances arise.
3.14 We fully support the development of filtering software technology which can limit not only children's access to potentially inappropriate sites, but also limit the sharing of personal information in public forums. The president of one prominent company developing such software, Gordon Ross of NetNanny Inc., serves on the KidsCom Advisory Panel, which helps direct content and development of the site.
However, we strongly believe that such software should not be used as a substitute for parental involvement. Nothing can replace a Mom or Dad sharing in the on-line experience with their child.
3.15 We do not have enough information on costs and benefits to make an informed comment on this topic.
Unsolicited Commercial E-mail
3.16 KidsCom, on occasion, sends e-mail to registered children. The e-mail is used only to notify children of new content or activities on or related to the site. It is not used as a means of advertising for any other products or companies. The source of the e-mail addresses is our self-maintained list of KidsCom's registered users. No outside e-mail lists are purchased by KidsCom. The KidsCom Company also does not sell the e-mail addresses of KidsCom users.
3.17 Children and parents benefit from KidsCom's e-mail by learning about new features of the site they may not have known about. We carefully use e-mail to share with children and parents new opportunities to learn about another culture, to explore creative projects and to spend time together on-line. We recognize that frequent e-mail from a single source can be obtrusive, so KidsCom only sends unsolicited e-mail to registered users approximately once every four to six weeks. We are proud that only few parents and children from our base of registered users have elected not to receive KidsCom e-mail updates.
3.18 There is no substantive financial cost to children or parents from KidsCom e-mail. If the e-mail was sent daily or weekly, it could be a source of annoyance. Therefore, KidsCom only sends unsolicited e-mail to registered users approximately once every four to six weeks Included in every e-mail sent by KidsCom is an opportunity for parents and children to ask to be removed from any future e-mail.
3.19 Currently we are not aware of any widely used technology that might help parents who prefer that their children not receive unsolicited commercial e-mail. However, every e-mail sent to KidsCom registered users to update them on site developments includes an "opt-out" statement that reads:
3.20 KidsCom follows - and exceeds - the Principles for Unsolicited Marketing E-mail as presented at the June 1996 Workshop by the Direct Marketing Association and the Interactive Services Association.