March 2, 2005 12:51 PM PST

No Yahoo freebie for kids--unless Mom signs off

The fine print in Yahoo's 10th anniversary celebration highlights a little-known law aimed at protecting kids from unscrupulous Web marketers.


Images: A decade of
yodeling with Yahoo

In short, if you're younger than 13, you need parental consent in order to participate in the company's Baskin-Robbins ice cream giveaway taking place on Wednesday. (Yahoo complies with the rule by asking would-be participants what their age is. Those who say they are 12 or younger are asked for a credit card number.)

It may seem like regulatory trivia, but the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act has slapped marketers with stiff penalties in the past. In 2001, for instance, the Federal Trade Commission fined three Internet companies a total of $100,000 for alleged COPPA violations.

More aggressive attempts in Congress to single out Web sites for more stringent data collection rules than those that apply to offline companies have failed. But COPPA, enacted in the early days of the commercial Internet--when worries about children ran high--stands as a regulatory outcropping that occasionally snags online marketers.

In 2003, for instance, a number of liberal groups teamed up to charge that Amazon.com's toy section violates the law by permitting children to post messages freely. Their complaint provided an example of a review, allegedly posted by an 11-year-old, that contained the child's full name and home city. That complaint was later dropped, after FTC staff recommended against it.

Even the White House and the Department of Justice have run afoul of COPPA: Both Web sites had children's areas that asked for information without securing parental consent first. And the children's TV show "Thomas & Friends" halted e-mail updates to children in 2000 because organizers felt that it would be too expensive to comply with the law.


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COPPA says Web sites must, in general, "obtain verifiable parental consent for the collection, use or disclosure of personal information from children."

The regulation has been criticized by libertarian groups as being too broad and for having been rushed into law. Privacilla.org, a privacy advocacy Web site, says COPPA was subjected to limited scrutiny before being enacted as a part of a mammoth spending bill and that it raised the cost of serving children online by up to $100,000 per Web site.

 

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