From: "Steve Bryan" email@example.com
Dear Sir or Madam,
I am writing today to comment on the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule as provided for on or before June 11, 1999. I'd like to comment first on the stated purpose of this law. Section B paragraph 3 states that "The proposed Rule is designed to assist parents in controlling the flow of their children's personal information on the Internet." In one respect the law seems to accomplish that, in another, it clearly has the opposite effect.
I'd like to go on record as expressing my complete support for regulations that cover the collection and use of the personal information of children. Most of the language of this Rule addresses the effort to correct what has been a rule-free environment where many site operators purposefully worked to collect children's contact information for sale as mailing lists, or other follow up contact efforts without parental consent. I think we would all agree that this is unacceptable behavior and the bulk of this law will correct much of that improper activity. For that, you have my vote.
Where I believe the law is problematic is in its inclusion of those web site operators who collect no personal information about kids whatsoever, but who do provide the interactive activities that are the essence of the Internet experience. Under the Law, those who provide e-mail, chat, discussion groups and personal home pages are "enabling a child to publicly reveal his or her personal information..." and are required to obtain the same parental consent as those who would sell mailing lists to tele-marketers. While it is certainly true that a child could send their personal information to others, there is no collection or use of the child's personal information by the Company inherent in providing them with the interactive tools of the Web. The real catch here is that the same interactive tools are freely available on thousands and thousands of non-kid sites who are not subject to this law.
I represent a company who operates a children's web-site which does offer e-mail, chat rooms, personal home page builder, and discussion groups. Because we feel a responsibility to the safety of kids, we have built features into each of these tools to help protect kids. Many other reputable children's web sites offer similar features. For example:
Our e-mail system is a "closed loop" system. It limits the potential recipients and senders of e-mail to a defined list set up for each e-mail account. The parent's e-mail is required and parents are notified when the Mail Pal list changes.
Our Chat Rooms are only open during certain hours of the day. We do not provide a place for kids to hang out at 1:00 A.M. We also employ adult chat monitors who have the training and tools to identify and eject from the chat room those who are misbehaving in the chat rooms either through inappropriate language or by an attempt to disclose their own, or someone else's personal information.
The use of our personal home page builder creates a page that is reviewed by adult employees of the company before the pages become visible to the web population at large. In this way, we are able to intercept both inappropriate content and the attempt by the child to purposefully or inadvertently disclose their own, or someone else's personal information.
Finally, our discussion groups consist of children who are reviewing games at the site. They are invited to comment on what they like or dislike about various computer games and video games. We employ adults who review each submission for inappropriate content or an attempt by the child to purposefully or inadvertently disclose their own, or someone else's personal information.
I don't list these features to showcase our site, but to give examples of the kind of kid-safe features that are built into many many children focused web sites, and have been since long before this law was proposed.
The problem is this. The law as written will have exactly the opposite effect as the stated purpose. The collaborative tools of the Internet are available on literally thousands of web-sites. All of the major portal sites, many of which are pre-bookmarked when the browser is installed, offer free e-mail, chat rooms and other interactive activities. Everyone from professional sports teams to popular TV shows to sites dedicated to entertainers offer "vanity" e-mail accounts (ex:YourName@mailto:YourName@BroncosFan.comStarTrek.com), Thematic chat rooms ("Live Chat" about the Seattle Mariners), and Discussion Forums (Be an armchair quarterback at the Oakland Raiders Website) and general free e-mail like HotMail at MSN. None of these sites, not the portals, not the special interest sites, and not the millions of non-commercial sites are subject to this Rule. More importantly, none of these sites build the child oriented features into their general purpose applications.
The result is a whole universe of possibilities for kids to mis-use the Internet and to disseminate their personal information through any of thousands of web sites that, while not "targeted" at kids, are certainly interesting and known to them. What many children's web sites have attempted to do is to build versions of those popular collaborative tools that do in fact keep kids safer while online. The law makes it difficult for the kids to use them, difficult for children's sites to build a viable business (high traffic), and difficult for parents who must now give permission independently for their child to use each and every child oriented site.
Another item that seems to be overlooked in this law is the implicit "permission" that kids already have to go on the Web. Nearly all schools require it at the start of the school year. At home, one would have to presume that "permission" is required for going online. I am a parent of 4 children in this age group (under 13) and with minimal effort, I am able to exercise a high degree of control through the use of widely available filtering software and adherence to a few common sense rules. What flies in the face of common sense is the requirement that I go to each of my children's favorite "kid" site and give permission to each of them before my kids can go there. They are the precise places I want my children to go. This law turns them away.
My closing analogy is this. Imagine a child walking down a street and arrives at 2 movie theaters, one across the street from the other. The one on the left side is well lit, plays only G-rated movies, is staffed by adults who monitor and supervise behavior, and serves good wholesome food in the snack bar (I consider Red Vines to be Wholesome). The theater on the right side plays R-rated movies, has little adult presence, is dark, and serves junk food. This law, if applied to my metaphorical world, would require parental permission before entering the G-Rated theater, but would require none whatsoever to enter the R-rated one. Where do you think the kids will go? We will drive children away from the very sites designed for them.
Clamp down hard on those who collect personal information for marketing purposes without parental consent. I totally agree. But please consider the folly of including those of us who have tried to make the web experience a positive one for kids based solely on our delivery of child-safe versions of the same tools kids will always be able to access at millions of non-kid sites. Any imagined barrier to kids visiting these general purpose sites in just that....imaginary.
I respectfully submit my comments and thank you for the opportunity.
Steven G. Bryan
"Download ZeekSafe... Free Web Filtering Software at www.zeeks.com"