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Privacy Rules Planned For Net

The government is laying plans for enforcing a new law that bans companies from collecting personal information from children on the Internet without a parent's permission.

The Federal Trade Commission's proposed rules, announced Tuesday, would require operators of commercial Web sites to make "reasonable efforts" in most cases to obtain consent from parents before asking children under 13 for their names, addresses, telephone numbers or other identifying details.

The rules also would prohibit a company from enticing children with online games or prizes into disclosing "more personal information than is reasonably necessary." They will be adopted after a 45-day public comment period and will take effect next April.

But the agency didn't suggest in its rules how companies should contact parents for permission - such as by e-mail or fax - saying only that it "must be reasonably calculated, in light of available technology."

FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky said the agency sought to give control to parents over information about their kids, while also offering flexibility to different businesses on the Internet and to new technology.

"The FTC, quite properly, left that open," said Ronald Plesser, an attorney who worked with the Direct Marketing Association and other groups. "I think there will be a range of mechanisms. The beauty of technology is that today's problem is maybe an easy solution tomorrow."

The problems facing regulators involve the faceless nature of the Internet, where children often know more about the technology than their parents and can easily impersonate an adult with a few mouse clicks.

The government wants to protect children's privacy, but not through regulations so onerous they might discourage children from using the Internet or hinder the extraordinary potential for electronic commerce.

"Parental consent is the key provision," said Katharina Kopp, a policy expert at the Washington-based Center for Media Education, which lobbied for the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, passed by Congress last year.

"Without that, the whole legislation is really quite meaningless," Kopp said. "We want the FTC to implement effective rules that don't create huge loopholes."

The law doesn't require companies to obtain a parent's permission to collect a child's e-mail address to send him information on a one-time basis, such as a digital coupon for a video game.

Although the proposed rules don't suggest ways companies might contact parents, the FTC said separately in a news release that possibilities include use of a credit card by a parent, a toll-free telephone number, a form signed by a parent or e-mail with new digital signature technology.

"They seemed to anticipate this was going to be a hot potato," said Jason Catlett of Junkbusters Corp., a New Jersey-based privacy group. "Rather than ut up something that would be shot down from all sides, they'll let the commentators fight it out and take what they see as a satisfactory compromise."

The rules also require companies to give parents the choice of whether to disclose information about their children to other businesses, and to review whatever details were collected from children.

The privacy law was prompted by an FTC study last year of 1,400 Web sites. It included one where children were asked to give their names, addresses, e-mail addresses and ages and say whether they ever received gifts of stocks, cash, savings bonds or certificates of deposit.

Earlier this month, Vice President Al Gore hastily stripped from his Web site questions asking children for their names, e-mail addresses and zip codes after The Associated Press raised questions about them.

Campaign officials said the questions would not have violated the new privacy law, which isn't yet in effect and covers only commercial Web sites, but they decided to remove them anyway.

Written by By Ted Bridisc

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