Limits on kids' online activity considered by senators

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limits on kids' online activity considered by senatorsHas the danger for children from social networking sites, cell phones and the web grown strong enough that it's again time for the government to step in to set some rules?

Senators asked those questions today at a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee panel on Consumer Protection.

A decade after Congress enacted the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, a law which requires web sites wanting personal information from kids under 13 first get a parent's OK, some senators expressed doubts that the law goes far enough.

"Clearly the online world has changed dramatically," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. "It's very important we examine this rule so we keep up with technology."

The panel's chairman, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said he is worried.

"I am concerned about our kids' online safety," he said. He suggested that because the law originally targeted at web activities and only at children under 13, it may not fully be up to addressing the social networking and children-targeting activities that have developed since. He cited as one example the possibility that cell phone services could soon used GPS services to track where children travel, then target them with ads.

"We know that while companies are making strides to protect young people from predators and online dangers, the disclosure of personal information by young people is prevalent," he said. "As more kids have access to phones and as tracking devices and mobile technologies increase in sophistication, greater understanding of how children could be impacted is essential."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who chairs the full Senate Commerce Committee, questioned whether marketers could ever be expected to step back voluntarily.

"I don't think companies really want to [step back]. Money trumps bad behavior and kids and users and all those things are left to the side."

The Federal Trade Commission is currently looking at rewriting its requirements, but Kathryn Montgomery, an American University professor who helped to create the original law, said more needs to be done about teens.

"I think we need a fair information practices for adolescents," she said, warning that social networking sites were lessening privacy as a value." While Apple and Google declined to testify, representatives of Microsoft and Facebook urged the panel to go slow on implementing additional curbs.

"We don't really support changes at this point," said Tim Sparapani, Facebook's director of public policy. Microsoft supported legislation, but aimed more broadly at internet privacy practices.

Berlin Szoka, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, warned that teen-directed restrictions could violate the First Amendment.
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