Dossier D.C.: Online Safeguards

Aside from larry king, msnbc and a few tabloids, most journalists are willing to let Princess Diana rest in peace. An international debate over the media’s lack of respect for personal privacy, however, has just begun. Ironically, the devastating death of Diana last month spawned legislative efforts to try and ensure that even celebrities can expect a modicum of privacy-and safety.
But most of the bills are stalled or being reconsidered due to the punishments they impose on the mainstream press and the First Amendment issues they raise. For example, California state Sens. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) and Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), whose bills have bounced to next session, proposed measures that would restrict photographers’ access to celebrities.
U.S. Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.) is refining a bill he introduced to Congress that would make intrusive tabloid news gathering a federal criminal offense. The Protection from Personal Intrusion Act seeks to imprison errant photographers for up to 20 years if their harassing activities result in a celebrity’s death.
While some legal scholars believe that the protection of public figures is not at odds with the First Amendment, most of the legislative initiatives are not likely to pass constitutional muster in their present form.
But there is a much more insidious and disquieting form of privacy invasion than the paparazzi-one that affects millions of people: data collection by marketers, particularly Internet marketers. The public is terrified that personal information is accessible via transactions with advertisers. People wonder: What do advertisers do with this information? Why do they need a personal profile of my family? How do I know information won’t get into the wrong hands?
You don’t. In an age when 4-year-olds are clicking mouses all over the Web and giving away information in a precocious fashion, everybody’s privacy is at risk.
The legislative antidote-the Communications and Decency Act-failed as a form of Internet protection. It was unconstitutional, and its broad stroke of keeping “indecency” off the Net could have censored ideas some consider mainstream. Its goal of protecting children was noble, albeit misguided.
The day after the Supreme Court overturned the act, I was blitzed with erotic email, low-rent advertisers offering me everything from soft porn to “teen pix.”
My point? The Internet is not known for restraint. And the technology for blocking Web sites is more futuristic and even less understood than the V-chip.
But the government’s concern hasn’t abated. The Federal Trade Commission has given the ad industry a year’s reprieve before it considers regulating Web marketers. The advertising community has until next summer to demonstrate its compliance with privacy guidelines and Internet self-regulation.
“The business community has got to give the public and regulators confidence that they can be trusted to handle information in an ethical manner,” says Dan Jaffe, senior vice president, government relations for the Association of National Advertisers. “The problem is that people know what their fears are, but they forget the advantage of good information.”
Jaffe’s organization was instrumental in setting up Casie, the Coalition for Advertising Supported Information and Entertainment. Casie has formulated a statement of goals for interactive media.
“We believe that if the marketer seeks personal information, it ought to inform the consumer whether the information will be shared with others. We also believe that before a marketer shares such personal information, the consumer ought to be offered an option to request that personal information be shared,” Jaffe insists.
It’s significant that the advertising trade groups have taken this stance. Many marketers understand that if they don’t respect the consumer’s privacy, the government is going to restrict them. What’s less clear is what level of compliance Casie is going to get-and whether its efforts will be enough for the FTC.
But what has upset parents is the idea that information about a child, or correspondence with a child on the Internet, could fall into the hands of unsavory, even sociopathic people.
Enter CARU, the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, an organization administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. CARU, which has helped children’s marketers police themselves for years, has come up with specific self-regulating Internet guidelines.
“Our concern is to protect children’s and family privacy rights when businesses communicate with kids,” says Elizabeth Lascoutx, vice president and director of CARU. The guidelines-which are available on the Web at be read in the context of CARU’s general ad guidelines. Online advertisers are strongly encouraged to make “reasonable efforts” to ensure that the person who pays for the child’s online transaction gets a chance to control the transaction-with written consent or the ability to cancel an order.
In the area of data collection, CARU states that advertisers should remind children to ask their parents for permission to answer questions. Children are to be discouraged from using their full names for any activity that involves public postings. And a parent’s permission should be secured before soliciting an email address from a child.
CARU is working with Disney to help it develop a site that protects children’s privacy. Disney’s site is also parent-friendly. It asks parents during the registration process what level of online comunication they want for their kids. For instance, children can exchange mail only with Disney or they can communicate with the larger electronic world.
There are places, however, where CARU’s guidelines can break down: Parents don’t always have email addresses. A letter of notification may go unread, only to end up in the circular file with the junk mail. More significantly, there is no way of knowing that a site’s “key pal,” an electronic pen pal, is actually a child. These are just some of the problems Web sites and parents grapple with.
CARU stepped into the fray after reading a report on children’s online privacy created by the Center for Media Education, a Beltway children’s advocacy group. It seized the attention of CARU and the FTC, according to Lascoutx.
For its part, CME has been critical of CARU’s guidelines, which it views as too little, too late.
“CARU has a tiny staff, and they are charged with monitoring all kinds of ads,” says Shelly Pasnik, CME’s director of children’s policy. “Logistically, it’s going to be daunting and insurmountable for them to regulate the industry.” She says in order to create meaningful safeguards with real punishments, the FTC has to intervene.
For now, CARU’s job is to educate the industry before the regulators roll in.
Lascoutx says mainstream marketers, such as Microsoft and difficult to reach. “We’ve got to get to all of them involved,” Lascoutx says.
Lascoutx, a former divorce attorney, says she is amazed that the ad industry can regulate itself. “We’ve got a year, and I’m confident we’re going to reach the people we need to reach.”