published Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Protect kids' Internet privacy

Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Rihanna and Demi Lovato might not be familiar to many adults, but hordes of U.S. adolescents idolize the pop performers. Such hero-worship is not new. What is new is the unprecedented opportunity that the Internet offers kids to interact — indirectly, to be sure — with the larger-than-life figures they adore. Such access, unfortunately, is not always benign. An agreement by the operator of fan websites for the four stars to pay a $1 million civil penalty for violating federal children's online privacy rules is a case in point.

Artist Arena will pay, but it neither admitted nor denied Federal trade Commission allegations that the firm had collected personal information — names, physical and e-mail addresses, birth dates and cell phone numbers — of more than 100,000 children under 12 without their parents permission. That violates the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act that requires website operators to notify parents and to obtain verifiable parental consent before the collection, use or disclosure of personal data about children younger than 13. It is a sound law, but one under siege.

Artist Arena fan club and fan newsletter websites asked users to submit personal details in order to join the club or receive newsletters. Most star-struck kids willingly do so. That's understandable. Most elementary-school age youngsters — the 12-and-under crowd — are savvy enough to use the Internet skillfully, but not yet wise enough to understand the possible ramifications of providing what must seem to them relatively harmless information to a website. The privacy law is designed to address that situation by requiring parental involvement.

The fan club operator clearly overstepped legal bounds. It had to know the age of youngsters signing up on the Internet — it asked for a birth date, after all — but the company nevertheless collected the information and upon receipt of a completed form sent the child an on-screen message reading "registration successful." Parents were notified via email that their consent was needed to complete the registration, but the request was moot. By then, the company already had obtained and presumably stored the kids' private information.

The civil penalty still must be ratified in court, but it should stand as a lesson to those who would use youngsters' affinity for and trust of the Internet to their own ends. Current rules that provide online privacy protection for children are being eroded by the on-going development of new apps and increasingly sophisticated technology. Stronger laws and enforcement on data-collection regarding children via the Internet are needed.

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