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Is Your Child's Information Protected Online?

We knew the day would come when we would see computers in the classrooms of students of all ages, even preschoolers. Even at home, computer usage among younger children is on the rise, and as such, so is Internet usage by a younger audience. Recent CPB statistics show that more than 65 percent of children* in the United States use the Internet at home, school or at public libraries.

Naturally, many parents are torn between allowing their children access to registration-required Web sites, whether they are sites created by individuals or Web sites created by corporations and nonprofit organizations.

Seeing a need for some concrete laws regarding what can and can't be used when collecting information from children online, the Federal Trade Commission enacted new rules for Web site administrators to ensure a child's privacy is respected online. These rules were an addition to the 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and took effect in the year 2000.

Web sites knowingly collecting information from children under the age of 13 must provide a public notice on their Web site that indicates the type of public information they collect (such as name, phone number address and so on). The site must also state how this information is used, and whether the information is made available to third parties.  Additionally, unless the information is being used for a one-time event (like a contest or to collect an e-mail address for a newsletter list), the Web site must obtain parental consent before collecting and using this information about a child.

[example of a COPPA compliant registration form from ytv.com]

For the Web sites needing to comply with COPPA, the challenge was great. Many Web sites needed to invest a large amount of money to comply with the law, and some sites run as non-profit or for fun ended up shutting down because they did not have available finances to comply with the amended Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. Still, other Web sites who couldn't afford to comply stuck up notices stating their Web site was not intended for those under the age of 13 — which kept them free of having to comply but also enabled them to continue running their Web site.

In theory, this amendment to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act would make one think it is safe to allow your child to surf the Internet and register on Web sites dedicated to their favorite game or cartoon character, but it is important to remember that the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act states the law, but parents must be diligent about assisting children with online Web site registrations and ensuring the child is not signing-up for something that is not appropriate for their age, and that the Web site in question does comply with the privacy Act. Additionally, many Web sites are not intended for children but your child may still access them — even if they site states its' content is not for under-aged children.

[example of a privacy statement written to protect the Web site operator IF a child's information is collected]

Web sites who are found guilty of noncompliance with COPPA now face heavy fines and repercussions. A Web site could be find up to $11,000 per incident of noncompliance. While this deters Web sites from breaking these laws, exceptions exist and parents need to look for these instances. If you believe a Web site has compromised the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, you can file a complaint directly from the Privacy Initiatives Web site (see related links below).

One way to ensure your child's information is not being distributed or misused is to create a free online e-mail account that your child can use for entering contests and registering on Web sites. Once that account is created, the parent can assume the responsibility of checking the e-mail account to "filter" its contents and pass along only the e-mails they consider appropriate for their child. Additionally parents should make it a priority to discuss privacy with their child and set rules for registering on Web sites. This could be something as simple as having the child show you the Web sites they wish to join, allowing you, the parent, an opportunity to read the Web sites' privacy policy before your child registers. While the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act provides the laws, parents still need to be diligent in reading Web site privacy policies prior to having their child register on them.

Based in Nova Scotia, Vangie Beal is has been writing about technology for more than a decade. She is a frequent contributor to EcommerceGuide and managing editor at Webopedia. You can tweet her online @AuroraGG.

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