Bradner's column: The Price of Kids

A cover story in Network World US 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 I think it gave short shrift to a basic point.

The New York Times reported on May 19 that the US Federal Trade Commission had gotten fed up with the abysmal record that major Web sites have compiled on 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 Internet.

Until now the FTC has gone along. But reality finally seems to have sunk in, and the FTC has belatedly realised that depending on the ability of companies like RealNetworks 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 when they are being exploited and that parents need to be in the loop. It sure was insightful of Congress to figure this out.

COPPA was passed in 1998, but the detailed requirements were only released late last year. Still, the basic facts have been known for quite a while and Web site designers should have been coding to meet them.

Yet it looks from the article that much of the work to make the sites compliant was done in the last few months. I cannot tell for sure as it is so hard to find factual information from the Web sites, but it even looks like one of the sites featured in the article came online after the law was passed and two others are only 4 years old. I imagine that all of them have 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. It 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 emphasise the reason for the legislation in the first place. Zeeks.com spent $150,000 to get ready for the law. What price should be placed on a child's development? On a per-kid basis, 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 like to have seen a better recognition of progress in an article about the first glimmer of a clue on the part of this government.

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

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@sobco.com.

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