Law sought for children's privacy on Internet

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A US government agency has called for legislation to protect the privacy of children using the Internet, following a survey which showed widespread soliciting of personal data, including from juveniles, with no assurances about how it would be used.

The agency, the Federal Trade Commission, is still considering whether to recommend statutory safeguards to replace self-regulation where adults are concerned.

The FTC report, published yesterday, was commissioned by the United States Congress in an attempt to gauge the success of voluntary self-regulation by companies advertising on the Internet. The findings, described by the FTC Chairman, Robert Pitofsky, as "disappointing", could herald the end of the Clinton administration's generally hands-off approach to Internet regulation. Stronger words came from privacy campaigners, one of whom, Jeff Chester of the Center for Media Education in Washington, called the report "a major indictment of the lack of privacy on-line".

Of 1,400 commercial Internet sites surveyed, the FTC found that only 14 per cent gave any indication of how the personal information they collected would be used, let alone any guarantee that the information would not be passed to third parties. The report cited several companies operating "chat-rooms" for children, which requested full name, address, e-mail address and hobbies. The information would allow them to be easily tracked and targeted by advertisers.

Last July, in its first policy pronouncement on Internet privacy, the Clinton administration recommended that commercial concerns possessing websites should disclose how personal data would be used and whether it could be passed on. Introducing the report yesterday, Mr Pitofsky said that while some big companies like IBM and America Online were following these guidelines, the policy of voluntary policing "is not working".

In the first instance, the FTC wants a law that would require companies to ensure that a child under 12 had an adult'spermission before disclosing personal details. Recognising the ease with which children could falsify their age or fabricate a confirmatory e-mail from a parent, Mr Pitofsky said that this would none the less be preferable to the current situation where companies could effectively operate like "door-to-door salesmen", touting wares to children who were "home alone" and unsupervised.

The survey confirmed the fears of many Americans over lack of on-line privacy, but it is the Internet itself which people find most threatening. This is not only because of the sophistication of data collecting and sorting techniques, but because the Internet allows companies to track not only what people buy, but what they considered buying and rejected.