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Here's our lineup for this third week of April:

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Children's privacy law launched

If there were a family scrapbook chronicling children in cyberspace, it would have a whole page of clippings about April 21, 2000. Today the 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), the first US law governing anybody's privacy on the Internet, goes into effect.

It's a banner day, but it actually falls in the middle of an important learning process about conducting business in cyberspace. Many individuals and organizations have been part of the process - from the Federal Trade Commission, which wrote the rules for compliance with COPPA and is charged with enforcing it, to children's and consumer advocacy groups to Internet companies. They'll all continue to pay attention because COPPA is being seen as a test for whether similar privacy rules should, or will, be applied to all Internet users.

This is our Web-style "COPPA scrapbook page." On it, we've pasted notes from our ongoing "journal" about kids' online times; our notes record a little experiment we conducted to see how effective the kids' privacy rules are at this moment in time. Just below that are links to the best Web sites and reports we've found which help parents, teachers, and children understand how COPPA works and what they can do to benefit from it.

A kids' privacy experiment

As the FTC puts it, COPPA concerns Web sites that are "directed to children or that knowingly collect information from kids under 13." In our experiment, we focused on that line the law draws between ages 12 and 13. We already knew many fine sites targeting kids 6-12 were turning somersaults to comply with the law. Some, we learned, were young companies spending, for them, considerable amounts of money - $60,000-$100,000 a year - to protect the kids using their services. That's great for kids who choose to play and communicate safely - with peers only - online.

But, knowing how so many preteens want to be teenagers yesterday (and how much role-playing goes on online), we wondered how COPPA so far affects kids who lie about their age so they can spend time in sites for teens. We registered to join We filled out the registration form (user name, password, gender, birthday) and gave the birthdate of an eight-year-old. What came back was, "Sorry. You must be at least 15 years old to become a member of Bolt." So we went back and kept all the information the same except for year of birth. We changed it to 1980. This time we were in. A white lie gives access to all member privileges in this Web site. So, right now, it's only kids who want their privacy protected - and who have fairly Web-literate parents willing to take time to go through the parental-consent process - who benefit from the law.

We'd like to explain that the only reason we're singling out Bolt is because it illustrates how COPPA compliance is very much a work in progress. Children's sites that have conscientiously brought themselves into compliance -,,,,, to name just a few - are only the most obvious players coming under the law.

Now the FTC has to turn its attention to the part about sites that "knowingly collect information from kids under 13." FTC staff attorney Loren Thompson told us that can include general-audience Web sites as well as sites targeting teenagers. "Although they're directed at teens, they may have significant attraction to younger children. If the Web site operator has good indications that younger kids are coming to the site, there may be something we can do," Loren told us, indicating that the FTC is not just interested in filing law suits. "We can work with the operator and say, look, you may fit within the definition of 'directed to kids.' COPPA … applies to any site that has actual knowledge that it's collecting information from someone under 13."

Part of the new COPPA rules is the requirement of a privacy policy. has a clear, well-written one, but the site may hear from the FTC about the section headed, "What about privacy for users under 13?" The site states, "Our registration process is designed to ensure that no one under the age of 15 joins Bolt." That would be more accurate if it read, "…designed to ensure that no one who *says* s/he is under 15 may join Bolt. The policy continues, "If we receive notice that a member has provided incorrect information during registration and is actually under 13 years old, we will immediately close their account." The FTC rules suggest that more protection than that is needed.

It was interesting to watch another teen site,, change its privacy policy, virtually before our eyes this week (during the day on Monday), to address the COPPA rules with the FTC's own wording. The statement changed from, in part…

"If you are under 13, you should always ask your parents for permission before sending any personal information to us or to anyone else. We will not use information about users under 13 in any individual profiles. We do not rent nor sell personal information about users under 13 to third parties. In addition, we will not send any e-mail notices about products or promotions to users under 13 without first obtaining their parents' permission."


"Kids under 13. is not directed to children under the age of 13. prohibits registration by children under the age of 13. will not knowingly collect personally identifiable information from kids under 13. "Note to Parents. If you have any concerns about the site or its related services, wish to find out if your child is a member of one of our services, or wish to cancel your child's membership, please contact us…."

The FTC rules suggest that, for sites to comply, they cannot depend on parents to take the initiative. They have to get "verifiable parental consent" before collecting any information from a child under 13, even if the child says she's 15. Sites can't depend on children to go get their parents' permission.

There's no getting around the fact that protecting children's privacy online places an extra burden on everybody: parents (to verify their consent by phone, fax, or snail mail) and kids (to hound their parents to hurry up and do so!), as well as Web publishers and the FTC. Going forward, it seems to us the question is, How can we keep the law from punishing only the most conscientious and informed Netizens?

If any of you go through the permission process with any Web site, we'd very much like to hear what you think of the experience and/or how the site handled it. If you'd like to comment on the law or anything we've written here, we'd love to hear from you about that, too. The address is

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Key COPPA links

For those who want information on the law itself, here's the rest of the "COPPA scrapbook page" - great new resources for all ages, media reports, and developments coming down the line:

Kidz Privacy - just unveiled by the FTC this week, this site is the definitive word on COPPA, with sections for "kidz," adults, and Web site publishers. The "Adults Only" page has a nice feature - a clickable question mark by each tip that links to the corresponding COPPA requirement for Web publishers in the section designed for them ("Business Buzz"). Vice versa for the Web publishers' section.

A Parent's Guide to Online Privacy - Soup to nuts, a great new resource by the Center for Media Education, a children's public interest research organization in Washington. Useful features include a guide to Web site privacy policies, a glossary of privacy terms, and a summary of COPPA provisions parents will want to know about.

FTC's Safe Harbor program - In addition to enforcement, there's the Web publisher self-regulation part of the FTC's job. The program allows companies to submit for FTC approval solutions and technologies that help Web sites stay in compliance with COPPA. - a site and service spearheaded by cyberlawyer and Cyberangels executive director Parry Aftab. Slated to launch on April 21 too, part of the service is a "central registry," where parents reportedly will be able to register their children once, rather than fill out many forms in many children's Web sites. As far as we can tell right now, it's somewhat similar to Microsoft's "Kids Passport" (next item). Success will depend on the number of Web publishers each service can sign up (similar to the limitations of voluntary Web site rating systems).

Microsoft's "Passport" program - part of what Microsoft calls a "suite of e-commerce services" that Web publishers can use to streamline the online purchasing process. Therein lies the difference from - this is a commerce-enabling tool with an inherent incentive for Web sites with e-stores to join up. Here's the parents' page on Kids Passport; it contains a directory of participating sites (so far they're all Microsoft Network sites). Microsoft says Kids Passport is "the first turnkey solution available to [Web publishers] for managing parental consent and helping [them] comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act." Here's a second opinion (positive) at's Internet Product Watch.

COPPA coverage

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Web News Briefs

  1. President's digital-divide tour

    President Clinton ventured in the tech world in a big way this week. According to the Associated Press, he went on a two-day "digital divide" tour from Silicon Valley to a Native American community in Shiprock, N.M., to a high-tech trade show in Chicago to draw attention to the disparity between technology have's and have-not's. The AP says that, though the White House press corps has been shrinking in these closing months of Clinton's presidency, Web journalists showed up in force for the trip. "It was the dot-com media's debut in any noticeable numbers in the presidential entourage," the report said. The Digital Divide Network has a Webcast (as well as a text version) of a discussion the President had with several Silicon Valley CEOs in Palo Alto, Calif., this week. Wired News covered a different part of the tour in "Clinton Does Comdex". And Forrester Research did a study looking into "The Truth About the Digital Divide".

    On his tour, the President also spotlighted a joint initiative by the YWCA and 3Com Corp. called "NetPrep GYRLS", which will provide free computer network training and certification for high school girls around the country.

  2. Child porn ring busted

    US federal prosecutors uncovered and shut down a major commercial child pornography operation based in Texas, Wired News reports. The case, which even the experienced lead prosecutor said frightened and appalled her, involves a "suburban Texas couple," the business owners, who were indicted on 87 counts, three overseas Webmasters, and thousands of customers worldwide.

  3. Teen cyberattacker arrested

    A 15-year-old Montreal high school student whose Net nickname is "Mafiaboy" was arrested this week for attacking It was the first arrest in a US-Canadian investigation into the "denial of service" attacks that slowed Internet traffic and limited service on a number of large Web sites last February, according to the New York Times. The FBI and Royal Canadian Mounted Police indicated that the attacks had several "authors" operating independently and more arrests are coming. "Mafiaboy" was caught apparently because he claimed credit in chat rooms and inadvertently left information on a University of California computer he'd allegedly "hijacked" for the attack. Wired News has the hacking community's reaction to the arrest.

  4. Net music news: 2 twists

    For anyone following Net music news, a new twist was introduced this week: The band Metallica sued not only Napster for violating its copyrights, but also three universities. According to CNET, Metallica sued Yale University, Indiana University, and the University of Southern California as well, for complicity in music piracy because the schools didn't ban Napster from their networks. [In coverage later this week, the first two schools decided to ban Napster, CNET reported, and Reuters reported that Metallica dropped Yale from its suit. Wired News quotes a music site CEO saying the party is almost over for Napster users.]

    In another twist, other artists are suing and several record labels (including Time Warner and Sony) for distributing their songs over the Internet, CNET reports. As for the record labels themselves, the New York Times has a report on Sony and BMG's "long-awaited" plans to sell their music via digital downloads. All this is further confirmation of how integral the sharing and downloading of music has become to the world of the Internet. As enablers in this as-yet virtually lawless space, Napster and are the focus of lawsuits coming from another, very different and very litigious world. If anyone has another view, way of describing it, or experience with Napster, we'd love to hear from you.

  5. Laptops in the (B-school) classroom

    The latest issue in America's business schools is whether the MBA candidate should be allowed to use his/her laptop in class as s/he pleases, according to Amy Ellin in her New York Times column, "The Laptop Ate My Attention Span". In some cases, perish the thought, rules about what students can and can't do with their laptops are being imposed. For its part, Columbia University Business School has chosen not to police laptop behavior. Don't miss Amy's response, at the bottom of the article, to Columbia's statement on the subject (we agree).

  6. 'Dot-Com' CEOs

    Forrester Research has been much in the coverage of the market correction this past week. Even before the correction the market research and consulting firm had been saying that a lot of e-retailers would not survive long. In an article featuring Forrester CEO George Colony this week, Wired News makes it look like the correction was needed for more reasons than one! Wired talked to Colony after he finished "a lengthy series of interviews with executives about how they expect the Internet to change their businesses over the next 10 years." In an open "letter" on the Forrester site, Colony says the project led him to the conclusion that "many of the dot-com CEOs lacked depth, experience, and common business sense," and their commitments were short-term (it's not all their fault, he says - venture capitalists encourage them to think this way). Colony does point to exceptions, such as the CEOs of,, and

  7. Tech support - for a price

    Actually, there is a free part to's tech support, but don't bother with it, reports PCWorld in a review of CompUSA's new tech support service. It's the subscription telephone support service - at $49.95 for 120 days - that's really useful. This is interesting in light of our report last week on , which has tech support for seniors at the core of its business plan.

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


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