FTC mulls age verification for social networking sites

The US law designed to protect children on the internet has been a success, but children are at risk from new and emerging media and technologies such as social networking sites, according to a Government report.

US consumer regulator the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has produced the report on the nine-year-old law and has found that though it has been largely successful, children still face dangers online.

The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was passed in 1998 to protect children's privacy. It orders that websites directed at children or those which are aware that they are collecting information from children follow certain procedures.

They must clearly state their privacy policies, obtain parental consent before gathering information from children, allow parents to review and delete children's personal information and establish procedures to ensure the security of children's information.

The FCC was required to pass its own rule closely mirroring the Act, and it has just published a review of the operation of both.

"No changes to the Act or Rule are necessary at this time," it found. "The Act and the Rule have been effective in helping to protect the privacy and safety of young children online."

The review did find, though, that many general interest websites and new phenomena such as social networking could prove too much of a challenge to the current law.

"There is concern that younger children are migrating to more general audience websites, such as social networking sites, that are not intended for their use but nonetheless attract their presence," it said. "There is potential for age falsification on general audience websites, as well as liability under COPPA, should these sites obtain actual knowledge that they are collecting, using, or disclosing personal information from children online."

"The proliferation of general audience websites that may appeal to younger audiences, highlights the need for supplemental solutions, such as age verification technologies, that can provide additional measures of security for children as they increasingly engage in online activities," it said.

"Education and enforcement challenges may present themselves as, for example, the means by which children access the internet increasingly move from stand-alone computers to mobile devices," said the report

The FTC has prosecuted 12 cases under COPPA and has taken $1.8 million in civil penalties from organisations such as confectioner Hershey and social networking site Xanga.com.

Age verification technology could provide two-fold benefits for children. It could, at least in theory, protect the online spaces and services in which they play and participate by keeping out people who are inappropriately old. It could also help to keep children out of websites which are not suitable for children, which would be welcomed by parents.

The online publishing industry will watch the US Government's actions on age verification closely. While social networking sites may welcome the legal certainty that would come with compulsory age identification, they may baulk at Government control of a vast and growing market. MySpace alone, the market leader, has around 80 million members.

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