Bill Seeks New Online Protection For Children
Two congressmen introduce a bill that calls for the creation of a top level domain to designate child-appropriate Web sites.
Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to help make the Internet a safer place for kids--and for businesses selling to kids.
Reps. John Shimkus, R-Ill., and Edward Markey, D-Mass., have introduced H.R. 2417, which calls for the creation of a top level domain to designate child-appropriate Web sites, although definitive guidelines for what is and isn't appropriate haven't been established yet.
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The responsibility for assigning domain names falls on the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. The U.S. Department of Commerce has said it may block the nonprofit group from assigning any further domain names until it creates .kids as a domain for URLs containing content appropriate for children.
The bill is the latest move toward protecting children online. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, already requires that URLs ending in .kids must meet specific guidelines for guarding the collection of data on children. Parents could then monitor the sites accessed by their children more easily by keeping track of the domains that kids access.
Having clearly defined rules for operating child-oriented Web sites may help online businesses stay on the up and up. In the past, Web-site operators that have encountered trouble with the COPPA regulations have said there was a lack of clarity in the laws. In April, the FTC upped its COPPA enforcement efforts, making examples of three children-oriented Web sites that the agency said was illegally collecting personally identifiable information on its young visitors. The agency charged that as girls moved from online magazine GirlsLife.com to message boards run by InsideTheWeb.com and free E-mail account distributor BigMailbox.com, excessive personal data was being collected by the ventures.
The FTC charged that all three sites collected children's personal information for their own internal uses and let kids post personal information online without parental permission. It also said that BigMailbox shared the children's information with outside parties without parental consent. On April 27, a settlement was reached, and the defendants agreed to pay fines totaling $100,000.
General counsel Martin Roberts of LookSmart Ltd., owner of InsideTheWeb, says the root of the problem is that the guidelines are unclear. He says the FTC took swift actions to penalize the company before giving it a chance to amend its practices once it learned it had to comply with COPPA rules, even though children are not the target audience of InsideTheWeb. "We set up message boards, but we didn't know the kids were linking into the site until after the FTC told us," Roberts says. "I think that the statute is ambiguous in the way that it's been interpreted. This is not what we would have predicted or expected the regulations to entail." Roberts says future legislation governing this area needs to be clearer.
Meeting the established requirements of a .kids top level domain could help Web-site operators avoid such pitfalls.