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| DECEMBER 3, 1999 |
Hey, Kid...Want to See My Web Site?
Excerpts from Clicking Through: A Survival Guide for Bringing Your Company Online
There have been a number of efforts to protect children from inappropriate marketing messages and solicitations. In the U.S., the self-regulatory effort has been led by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, through its Children's Advertising Review Unit, or CARU (www.bbb.org/advertising/childrensMonitor.html). CARU publishes principles, which may provide a useful framework for evaluating children's issues for your Web site. The guidelines, while lacking the force of law, are extremely influential. Advertisers and agencies have incorporated them into their recommended practices and self-regulatory enforcement. Still, the FTC has noted that CARU's efforts to get Web sites to adhere to privacy guidelines when they collect personal information from children online haven't been as successful as its other efforts.
The Web's interactive, anonymous nature poses special issues for online marketers. It has never been easier or more tempting for advertisers and marketers to engage minors in conversation and activities. Kids like the online environment in part because they can impersonate adults or seek activities and materials that parents, teachers, or storeowners would block.
Protecting children online is likely to be the subject of governmental action, both in the U.S. and abroad. A June 1998 FTC report concluded that self-regulation would probably be insufficient to protect children. The E.U. has published a number of reports and proposals on protecting minors online. For one example, see: http://europa.eu.int/comm/dg10/avpolicy/new_srv/pmhd_en.htm
It's impossible to give a definitive answer on appropriate, legal methods of marketing to children on the Web. But, to minimize your risks, keep the following issues in the forefront of your Web-site planning, contracting, and management: Identify minors from among the visitors to your site and block them when desired; Use appropriate methods when marketing to minors; Get verifiable parental consent for online retailing to children, and grant certain parental rights.
BLOCKING MATERIAL. The persistence and ingenuity of many teens and even younger children makes it extremely difficult to protect them from inappropriate content as every liquor store and movie theater owner understands. For some sites, the issue of user age is unimportant. Yet many businesses have a vested interest in determining their visitors' ages. If you decide you need to verify age, you must balance the inconvenience to your users against the risk you're willing to accept. For example, one reliable verification method is a telephone call coupled with enough faxed pieces of identification to form a solid profile of the user. However, few if any Web-site users would submit to such stringent checks, except perhaps to sign up for a brokerage account or apply for a credit card.
What other options do you have? Most sites use a valid credit-card number for identification, on the assumption that credit cards will not be issued to anyone under 18. This is easier when a site offers goods or information for purchase. If your site doesn't sell anything, asking for a credit-card number will generate suspicion, if not hostility.
The sexual-content sites have been pioneers in age-verification methods. Because providing sexual materials to minors can expose them to lawsuits or criminal penalties, they have collaborated on a number of age-check "gateways." These tools all depend on credit-card numbers, even if the sites don't charge access fees. However, these methods are quite closely associated with sexual-content sites and may not be appropriate for other kinds of companies. There are less-intrusive options, including asking trivia questions about events more than 18 years in the past. The ones you select will depend upon: the average (and desired) age of your users; your business and the risks you would face for dealing with underage users; the level of inconvenience your users will accept to get your offerings; how quickly you need to verify ages.
REACHING CHILDREN RESPONSIBLY AND LEGALLY. What about sites that want to encourage children to come, such as traditional marketers extending their real-world children's brands to the Internet or companies taking advantage of the Web's youthful demographics to reach a new audience? Either way, you must know the "rules of the road" for marketing and advertising to children.
Safe online marketing practices for children grow out of those for traditional media. The CARU guidelines and similar resources do a good job of stating them. (CARU defines its protected group as users under 12; other self-regulatory groups or laws may stipulate different ages.) These practices include: Disclosing in plain language the real odds of contests; Clearly delineating advertisement from other material; Showing accurate and typical uses of products in ads and disclosing exaggeration for marketing effect; Displaying safe uses of a product, with adult supervision when needed.
The unique qualities of the online marketplace bring up some additional concerns:
Interactivity. Take extra care not to disguise ads as clubs or informational messages, i.e. "Hey, Suzy, would you like to hear a story about how Sugar Frosted Stars made Fred into an Olympic champion?"
Collecting and distributing a child's personal information. Kids cannot legally give consent, however "informed," when you want to collect or resell their data. If you don't ask for ages, a large percentage of your data may come from underage users, and you may be liable for unintentional uses of identifying information. Collecting and distributing a child's personal information It's very tempting to let kids to interact on your site. Unfortunately, your chat room or message board could easily be co-opted by older kids or adults, possibly masquerading as children. Imagine the consequences if a predator or other criminal uses information posted by a child on your site to harm the child. Less serious, but still damaging to your reputation is the common problem when older children or adults "take over" a message board or chat area meant for children. You must dedicate the personnel and technical resources to watch and (if necessary) intervene in discussions that could expose you to liability.
Links. You must decide how to indicate affiliation between your site and those to which yours link. Those sites' privacy policies might hurt your juvenile users and therefore your company.
Jonathan Ezor is a corporate and new-media attorney with the Long Island (N.Y.) firm of Farrell Fritz. He has written on legal and computer topics for such publications as Business Week Online, @NY electronic weekly, Advertising Age, and Infoworld. For more information on Mr. Ezor, go to www.clickingthrough.com. Published by arrangement with Bloomberg Press. All rights reserved.
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