April 22, 2003 3:21 PM PDT

Is Amazon.com no place for kids?

Amazon.com has taken insufficient steps to prevent children from posting personal information on its Web site, potentially endangering their privacy, a collection of advocacy groups said Tuesday.

Eleven groups,


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including the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Junkbusters, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), asking that it investigate whether Amazon is letting children 12 years old and younger post reviews of toy products without their parents' consent, which violates the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

A response from the FTC could help establish ground rules for how COPPA affects commercial Web sites primarily intended for adults. The 1998 law applies to data-collection by any Web site or online service directed to children under 13 years old. But Amazon's Web site states that it is intended for use only by adults and says, "If you are under 18, you may use Amazon.com only with the involvement of a parent or guardian."

Amazon spokesman Bill Curry called the complaint groundless because "Amazon.com is not a site directed at children." Curry acknowledged that a bug in Amazon's software caused a Web form, designed to allow children to review products anonymously, to work only intermittently, but he said the company had begun work on fixing it before the complaint was filed with the FTC.

"A second issue is children writing reviews and putting inappropriate information in reviews like a street address," Curry said. "When that happens and gets through the system, we remove it as soon as we're aware of it, and that's a longstanding policy. We have screens and automated systems in place. If something gets through that system, as soon as we learn about it we take it down. We're constantly making the hurdles higher."

The groups' complaint makes no mention of any child having been harmed. It says Amazon.com employees read product reviews before they are posted and should ensure that children do not disclose their personal information in the reviews. The complaint provides an example of a review that was allegedly posted by an 11-year-old and contained the child's full name along with the child's home city and state.

When members sign up for an account at Amazon, the company does not ask how old they are. That's not good enough, say the groups, which claim that Amazon "operates a site featuring products tantalizing to children and then disclaims any responsibility for marketing to children by asserting in its privacy policy that it technically only sells products to adults."

Some of the same groups assailed Microsoft's Passport system before the FTC on privacy grounds, leading to a settlement last August that specified that Microsoft would change some of its security practices.

The FTC has fined a number of e-commerce sites for violating COPPA. The companies that operate the sites Girlslife.com, Bigmailbox.com and now-defunct Insidetheweb.com paid a total of $100,000 in penalties to the FTC in 2001.

Free-market groups said the complaint is an example of why COPPA is an overbroad law that threatens legitimate businesses that do not intentionally collect information from children under 13 years old.

"It's no surprise that this is happening," said Sonia Arrison, director of technology policy at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco. "Because this comes from the anti-capitalist element of privacy advocates, this is something that corporations should take seriously. This is just the beginning. This is a test case to see how far they can go with COPPA."

Solveig Singleton, a lawyer at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, said companies like Amazon might react to the threat of COPPA by shutting down discussion areas. In response to the law, Walt Disney said in October 2000 that it would ban children under the age of 13 from participating in chat forums that aren't moderated on its Web sites.

"How are companies like Amazon.com that cater to adults and kids going to deal with this?" Singleton asked. "The fact is that parents give their kids the means to pay for things. When a parent does that, they're in effect giving their consent to their child interacting with a Web site. It's very very hard for me to see how a Web site can bear the burden in that case of figuring out whether this is really an adult."

Amazon.com shares closed up 33 cents to $25.58 at the close of Tuesday trading.

 

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