- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2000

Karen DeMars spent last weekend responding to e-mail messages from young customers angry that her teen-driven Internet company planned to delete the accounts of 20,000 children.

Companies like Miss DeMars' ECrush.com Inc., based in San Francisco, are changing the way they do business because of a new national privacy measure that takes effect tomorrow.

The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act is intended to protect the privacy of children younger than 13 by requiring on-line companies to get approval from parents before collecting personal information from them.

Privacy advocates say the new law will help protect children from intrusive marketers seeking personal information, even if children, many of whom are Internet-savvy and have grown up surrounded by technology, don't like the measure.

"Kids are uniquely vulnerable consumers," said Travis Plunkett, legislative director for the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Federation of America.

ECrush.com, which sends e-mail messages on behalf of anonymous suitors who want to meet a particular object of their affection, will delete the accounts of all registered users younger than 13, a decision that met with some disdain from young consumers.

"Kids who are 12 years old have a big problem with people telling them they can't do something," Miss DeMars said.

About 20,000 of the company's 350,000 customers are younger than 13.

New York-based Bolt.com, a Web portal that markets e-mail, voice mail, message boards, instant messaging and wireless services to teen-agers, went a step further and in February prohibited children younger than 15 from becoming registered users, eliminating about 50,000 of its 2.25 million customers.

Teens.com, a teen Web site run by Massachusetts-based W3T.com Inc., has prohibited children younger than 13 from registering on its site since last year.

The privacy law was prompted by a Federal Trade Commission study in 1998 of 1,400 Web sites, including one where children were asked to give their names, street addresses, e-mail addresses and ages.

In one instance, children playing an on-line video game were told that participation required indicating whether they received stocks or bonds for Christmas and listing the value of the investments, FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky said.

The new law will help keep manipulative marketers from preying on young Internet users, Mr. Plunkett said.

"This is a small step in the right direction," he said.

Marketing to children on the Web is big business. Bolt.com says teen-agers spend about $150 billion a year on the Internet. And 11 million to 16 million teens are on the Internet regularly, Teen.com spokesman Gene Belloti said.

An estimated 80 million U.S. adults use the Internet, according to an FTC report last year.

The FTC will enforce the new privacy law, which requires commercial Web sites targeted to children younger than 13 to:

• Provide clear notice of what personal information children are being asked for and how companies will use the information.

• Obtain verifiable parental consent in the form of a signed authorization form mailed or faxed to a Web site before collecting and using a child's personal information.

• Provide parents access to the personal information collected from their children and the right to prevent further use.

Congress passed the law in 1998.

Mr. Pitofsky said the agency will monitor Web sites used by children.

"If we find people are not obeying the statute, we will bring a lawsuit," he said.

Companies will face fines of $11,000 per violation, Mr. Pitofsky said.

"Privacy is a huge concern. It strikes me that if companies don't clean up their act, we could see more laws," said Angela Campbell, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and an attorney for the Center for Media Education, which conducted a 1996 study that raised awareness about children's privacy.

While the new law may stop companies from seeking personal information from children younger than 13, it won't stop children from lying about their age to get on Web sites that now want to prohibit their access, said Bolt.com Chief Executive Officer Dan Pelson.

That problem is unlikely to go away, despite the law.

"If a 15-year-old wants to buy cigarettes, they will find a way to do it," Mr. Pelson said. "The Internet is no different. If someone wants to lie about their age, they will find a way to do it. The best protection is at the computer, and mom and dad need to supervise their kids. This law shouldn't be seen as a safety net. The only safety net is mom and dad."

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