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ECommerceTimes.com

Money! I Spammed the Kids

By Paul A. Greenberg
Apr 5, 2001 2:15 PM PT

Once again, e-commerce is getting just a bit too comfortable with itself. Just when the dot-com shakeup seems to be leveling off, surviving companies are neglecting one of the key issues that could prove to be its undoing: children's privacy.

Money! I Spammed the Kids

Research has confirmed that children do not discriminate when it comes to the information they share online. Just because parents feel protective of their privacy does not mean their young children even understand the concept of privacy.

Unfortunately, instead of fostering that understanding or honoring the implied wishes of most parents, Web companies are using children to get to the family jewels. In this case, the jewels maybe conceptual ones rather than actual gemstones, but they're every bit as precious to their owners.

When will e-commerce begin to realize the importance of honoring moral values among American families? Illicit or just plain sneaky gathering of personal data from people too young to understand the critical importance of discretion is not just bad business -- it's a possible precursor to the failure of online selling, an industry that has yet to even find its legs.

Yes, Mrs. Cleaver

The real culprits of the e-commerce privacy debacle are shaping up to be the Eddie Haskells of the new economy. They're the ones who put on a good face for the government and the public, promising to comply with laws enacted to protect children online.

Unfortunately, like Eddie's behavior with the Beav's mother, their polite public ramblings come to naught once the public isn't looking.

As usual, the proof is in the numbers. A new study by the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center found that of 162 Web sites aimed at a young audience, half are not in compliance with the almost one-year-old Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

Specifically, the sites either have privacy policies that seem almost deliberately ambiguous in their wording and difficult to interpret, or the privacy policy is buried so deep within the site that most users cannot find it. Some sites are guilty of both.

Short Term Thinkers

Egalitarian philosophers would no doubt wonder why e-commerce is not working harder to protect children.

First, if we do not protect the weakest members of society, how do we expect the next generation of adult online consumers to trust online transactions? Children may be at a disadvantage now simply because of their lack of power and economic clout, but once they grow up many of them will understand and remember being taken advantage of online.

Second, an industry that deliberately conducts itself in an unethical fashion stands to lose its most precious commodity -- credibility.

It appears e-commerce gurus are not thinking long- term. So desperate are they to find a comfortable bottom line right now, that tomorrow is not even up for discussion.

Excuses, Excuses

The excuses that corporate privacy officers use are beginning to sound rather phony.

Many say that the regulations set down by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding online privacy and children are unrealistically expensive to enforce. Further, they make the argument that government is assuming a Big Brother role, rather than a legislative stance.

And finally, they say the real enforcers of online privacy for children should not be industry or government, but rather parents.

Parents Need Support

The problem is that although parents want their family's privacy protected, they expect the protection to be built in. They do not want to have to jump through electronic hoops to ensure privacy.

A new Harris study found that only 15 percent of consumers had installed a privacy program on their computers. Further, only 10 percent had installed software that enabled them to travel throughout the Internet anonymously.

Clearly, consumers are either not willing or do not understand how to protect their own privacy online.

Mandatory Compliance

It appears someone needs to protect us from ourselves when it comes to online privacy. Kids are not going to magically become more responsible in this regard, and even though parents are lax in their participation, they are nonetheless outraged when they hear their kids are being taken advantage of online.

It may be time for the FTC to crack down on non-compliance among Web sites geared toward children.

The FTC rules are pretty straightforward: sites must prominently post their privacy policies; parental consent must be granted to collect children's personal data; parents have to be allowed to review data collected from their kids.

For the sake of the full development of e-commerce and the long-term viability of online merchandising, it's time for Internet companies to be held accountable for their behavior and to be forced to comply with the law.

What do you think? Let's talk about it.

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Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


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