October 11, 2000 2:05 PM PDT

Disney locks children out of some chat rooms

Walt Disney will ban children under the age of 13 from participating in unmoderated chat forums on its Web sites, which often include "mature content," the company wrote Wednesday in an email notification addressed to parents.

Our "goal is to provide a safe, trusted online environment for our users under 13 years of age," the message read, noting that children under 13 can still use moderated chat forums available on sites including Disney.com.

The move comes as Web sites face increasing scrutiny over children's access to online content, including pornography. Chat rooms are considered particularly dangerous for children as lurking grounds for pedophiles.

The issue is a particularly sensitive one for Disney, which saw a former executive in its online Go Network, Patrick Naughton, sentenced earlier this year for crossing state lines with the intention of having sex with a minor he contacted by email.

In addition to barring children from its unmoderated chat forums, the company has posted extensive safe Web surfing tips on its site.

While Congress has generally been slow to enact laws regulating the Internet, it has put aside its reluctance when it comes to children. Under a federal law that took effect earlier this year, Web sites must gain verifiable parental consent before allowing children to use email and chat forums or before collecting consumer data on children through registration forms and other methods. The law, known as the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), has been criticized for raising the costs of Web site operations and has prompted some sites to stop offering content to children altogether.

For example, children's Web site Zeeks.com shut down its email and chat services last month, citing the high costs of compliance.

Orson Swindle, a commissioner with the Federal Trade Commission who supports industry self-regulation of privacy issues on the Net, told CNET News.com in a recent interview that COPPA is an example of "the law of unintended consequences of government regulation in the privacy sphere."

"A lot of well-intentioned efforts to provide valuable content to children is going away" as a result of this law, he said.

Disney announced the changes last week. The policy shift followed an investigation by the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Better Business Bureau, which found that children under 13 years of age had full access to unmoderated forums on Disney's Go.com site.

The review found that Disney had obtained parental permission for children to participate in the chat forums but had not adequately informed parents that the forums were unmoderated and might contain mature content.

A Disney representative said the company's policies are "above and beyond what COPPA requires," adding that the company had email age verification procedures in place before the law took effect. The company now requires people to register using a credit card number to verify ages to use child-restricted portions of its site.

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