Science & Technology

Permission Slip


In October, the Federal Trade Commission voted unanimously to approve final regulations requiring Web sites to obtain parental consent before collecting personal information, such as names, ages, or e-mail addresses, from children under the age of 13. The rule was drafted hastily after privacy advocates began complaining about Internet marketing to children.

Given all the scare stories it's easy to forget that the issue is much ado about next to nothing. Once you get past the apocalyptic rhetoric that still clings to many Internet-related stories, the privacy advocates were simply shocked that companies were pitching products to kids–something that happens during every half-hour of TV and every time a school bus passes a billboard.

Though the new regulations will undoubtedly reduce the flow of information between children and businesses, they will also hurt smaller Web site operators and shut many kids out of parts of cyberspace. The FTC requires that a site get parental consent via e-mail or telephone before it can collect any personal data from
a child. In cases where the information might be transmitted to a third-party, sites have to either provide a consent form that can be sent in via postal mail or obtain a valid credit card number from an adult.

Large companies such as Disney and the Discovery Channel have the resources to run a regulatory maze every time they collect an e-mail address from a child. But many smaller outfits do not, putting them at a competitive disadvantage. Opponents of the legislation have pointed out that children whose parents do not speak English, use computers, or have credit cards will have difficulty obtaining consent, effectively redlining them out of the Web's commercial zones.