Protecting Children Online Is Society’s Herculean Mission


Twenty years ago, a boy in Palo Alto concocted a scheme to get free ice cream. He noticed that in a chain of ice cream shops called Farrell’s, he could fill out a form that would get him free ice cream on his birthday. The forms were on a pad kept on each shop’s counter.

He took several of these forms and filled them out with fictitious boys’ names and with birthdays scattered throughout the year, but with his own address. Then Farrell’s sent him certificates for free ice cream for each of the fictional boys.

About 10 years later, all of these fictional boys at this Palo Alto address started receiving letters in the mail. The letters were from the Selective Service Administration, warning the now young men that they had failed to register for the draft on their 18th birthdays. Farrell’s was forced to admit to the media that it had been selling its “free birthday ice cream” database to the federal government for years.


Recent polls have indicated that privacy is one of the chief concerns of people either using the Internet or contemplating using it: Earlier this year, 80% of respondents expressed concern about privacy to Equifax Corp., one of the leading firms that provides credit reports on individuals. That’s as close to unanimity as polls get.

Privacy is particularly sensitive when children are involved, and there are already nearly 4 million children using the Internet, according to Jupiter Communications, publisher of the monthly Digital Kids Report. That figure is expected to explode in the near future, because every state is pushing hard to get its schoolkids online, an effort endorsed by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) last month unveiled legislation to protect children’s privacy. She held a news conference with co-sponsor Rep. Bob Franks (R-N.J.) and Mark Klaas, father of 12-year-old kidnap-murder victim Polly Klaas, whose killer, Richard Allen Davis, was convicted last week. Feinstein’s bill is called the Children’s Privacy Protection and Parental Empowerment Act of 1996.

The issue of children’s privacy and the murder of Polly Klaas were dramatically connected in an experiment conducted by a Los Angeles television reporter for KCBS-TV, Kyra Phillips. Phillips purchased, for $277, a mailing list of 5,500 children living in Pasadena from a company in Chicago, Metromail, a subsidiary of R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co.

She gave the name of the buyer as Richard Allen Davis, not only a confessed child killer but also a convicted child molester. According to Phillips, there was no screening of her purchase. Feinstein says she introduced her bill because of what Phillips was able to do.

The interactivity of the Internet is a new way for companies to collect information about kids. Just as we adults are constantly “watched” for our buying habits and preferences when we use credit cards, fill out warranty cards or sign up for contests and giveaways, children using the World Wide Web are now being asked for information that is used to build databases that can be sold or rented.


The Center for Media Education, a nonprofit public interest group in Washington, identified in a recent report two disturbing trends: “invasion of children’s privacy through solicitation of personal information and tracking of online computer use; and exploitation of vulnerable young computer users through new unfair and deceptive forms of advertising.”

Children are enticed to Web sites through the use of games, cartoon characters, interactive puzzles and contests, among other devices. Once at a Web site, their “clickstream” activity--where they click the mouse--can be captured, giving advertisers information about what attracts kids and what doesn’t.

Children can also be asked to register at a site, typing in data in response to questions posed by the advertiser. Unlike TV ads, Web advertising can hold a child’s attention indefinitely, and data are collected on what individual kids are interested in, rather than on the aggregate number of children watching. KidsCom, for example, has a Web registration form for children that asks for the child’s favorite TV show, favorite TV commercial, interests and what the child would like to be when he or she grows up.


Feinstein’s bill would prohibit the distribution of information about children without parental consent, and it would require database list brokers to disclose, on demand from parents, where they got their information and to whom it has been distributed.

It would also prevent prisoners and those who have been convicted of child molestation from processing information about children, a provision prompted by a case in which an Ohio woman received a pornographic letter from a Texas prisoner who got her address when he was employed, while still in prison, typing electronic data into a database.

The bill is backed by a coalition called Kids Off Lists, which includes the Consumer Federation of America, the Family Research Council, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Privacy Times.

The recent debates about cyberporn and now kids’ privacy reveal that the introduction of children into cyberspace is one of the medium’s most vexing controversies. Kids need to master the virtual world of the Internet, because that’s how the future will work. But how we can protect children from threats presented by unscrupulous adults, with all the deceptive tricks available online, is going to be one of the hardest problems for society to solve.

Gary Chapman is director of The 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. His e-mail address is