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The price of kids

By Scott Bradner

A cover story in this paper two weeks ago seemed to lament the reportedly high cost of complying with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). It was not a bad article but totally missed two basic points.

The New York Times reported on May 19th that the Federal Trade Commission has gotten fed up with the abysmal record that major Internet web sites have compiled on the subject of the privacy of Internet users. The official administration position has been that the industry should police itself except in the one area of protecting the privacy of children who use the 'Net. Up to now the FTC has gone along. But reality finally seems to have sunk in and the FTC has belatedly realized that depending on the ability of companies like Real Networks and DoubleClick to understand the concept of privacy was a pipe dream at best.

COPPA is about the only example in the US of someone in authority being provably concerned with the invasions of privacy that are rampant on the Internet. It established that young kids are not mature enough to understand that they were being exploited and that parents need to be in the loop. It sure was insightful of Congress to figure this out.

The article did note in passing that COPPA was passed in 1998 but failed to make the connection that it should not have much of a surprise to the web site operators that the compliance deadline was coming along. Yet it looks from the article that much of the work to make the sites compliant was done in the last few months. I can not tell for sure because it is so hard to find factual information from their web sites but it even looks like one of the sites featured in the article came on-line after the law was passed and two others are only 4 years old. I can not imagine that all of them have not significantly reworked their sites within the past two years. They had ample opportunity to fix their software. But it is telling that they did not factor in parental consent from the beginning even without the law. Seems the law was needed.

The other place that the article came up short in my mind is that it focused on the cost of compliance and failed to mention at all the reason for the legislation in the first place. spent $150,000 to get ready for the law. What price should be placed on a child's development? On a per-kid basis just what did this cost? Peanuts at most!

A number of the columnists in this publication have written repeatedly about the seemingly endless assaults on privacy that Internet users are faced with every day. I would have liked to see some acknowledgement of progress in an article about the first glimmer of clue on the part of this government.

disclaimer: Clue and Harvard is a logical pairing but the University has not expressed an opinion on this topic so the above rant is mine.