Don't Talk to Strangers: An Analysis of Government and Industry Efforts to Protect a Child's Privacy Online

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Statistics reveal that approximately sixty-four million adults in the United States use the Internet.(1) Studies also indicate that nearly two-thirds of children have used the Internet.(2) In addition to being a valuable tool to those who use it, the Internet has created unique concerns for users, Internet providers, and lawmakers. Protecting a user's privacy while online is one such concern. A practice that implicates this concern is the collection, storage, and sale of an online user's personal information without that user's knowledge or consent. Such a practice is commonplace in the Internet world. A Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation of 1402 Web sites in 1998 revealed that ninety-two percent of those Web sites collected personal information from their users, yet only a fraction notified the user on how that information would be used.(3) The relative ease with which Web sites collect personal information from online users is disconcerting. In fact, the Internet is said to have the "capacity to be the most effective data-collector in existence."(4) The practice of collecting and releasing or selling an online user's information becomes particularly troublesome when the user is not an adult but rather a child. Unfortunately, studies indicate that the solicitation of a child's personal information is dangerously common.(5)

Given that children are signing onto the World Wide Web (Web) in increasing numbers, how to protect a child's privacy online is at the forefront of the "privacy" discussion. As a result, both the Internet industry and lawmakers focused their recent efforts to curb the widespread practice. The Internet industry has made conscious efforts aimed at protecting a child's privacy online.(6) These efforts include requiring that Web site operators post a privacy policy. Recently, big players in the Internet industry have created an informational Web site to alert parents about the dangers of their children roaming the Internet without supervision.(7) In November 1998, Congress enacted: the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which governs online: information collection from children under thirteen years of age.(8) Pursuant to COPPA, the FTC issued a rule implementing the requirements of the legislation.(9) The rule will become effective in April 2000.(10) In addition to legislation and industry efforts, technological tools are currently available that block the transfer of personally identifiable information from the user to the computer.

Attempts to address the matter of a child's privacy online raise the question: Who is in the best position to properly and effectively protect a child's privacy online? This Note attempts to answer this question. Part II discusses the privacy concerns raised by both adults and children online. Part III discusses the recently enacted COPPA and the FTC's Rule implementing the legislation and whether such legislation will prove effective in protecting children online. Part IV discusses the role of the Internet industry in protecting children online and the value of technological tools available to protect against the unwanted solicitation of a child's personal information. After concluding that neither the government nor the Internet industry are in a sound position to secure children's privacy online, Part V proposes the necessary element to ensure that children can enjoy the benefits of the Internet safely.

II. PRIVACY CONCERNS

A. Information Collection

The Internet is unique among other communications mediums in the "variety and depth of personal information generated by its use."(11) The majority of personal information collected online is gathered by Web sites in one of two ways. First, a Web sites collect the user's personal information without the user's knowledge.(12) A user browsing the Web provides the Web site with certain personal information each time that person visits a site. …