334. "Who Will Step Forward to Protect Kids?" USA Today (July 13, 2000), page 15A.
If someone asked you whether you'd support better protection for children from cigarettes, violent and vile materials on the Internet, and violations of their privacy, you'd think everyone would agree.
Yet two efforts by the maverick Republican senator from Arizona, John McCain, are likely to expire as the congressional session ambles to its unproductive conclusion.
The first calls for allowing the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the sale, distribution, marketing and promotion of cigarettes to children. This is a serious matter as 3,000 kids get hooked each day and they are the main source of new smokers. More than 90% of smokers began before they were of legal age. While the reason tobacco companies oppose such restrictions may be obvious, the position of civil libertarians is not so clear. They argue that these policies limit the free flow of information and ideas and, hence, offend the First Amendment.
In objecting to limiting Joe Camel ads -- believed to be specifically aimed at reaching children by drawing on an amiable cartoon character -- the American Civil Liberties Union argues that it is unreasonable to suppress ads that target children because doing so also limits the flow of information to adults. As the ACLU put it, "Adults cannot be reduced to reading only what is fit for children," and "attempts to reduce the exposure of minors to tobacco advertisements cannot avoid restricting the same information for the adult population."
The other McCain proposal concerns connecting public schools and libraries to the Internet. As part of a program called E-rate, the Federal Communications Commission is in the process of providing more than 25,000 schools, school districts and libraries with $ 1.66 billion worth of services, such as internal wiring and discounted connections to the Internet.
McCain's idea is to require schools that accept E-rate funds to certify that they will use filtering or blocking software of some kind to protect children from violent and vile material on the Internet. Libraries accepting funds would have to use blocking software on at least one computer, specifically designated for use by minors.
The introduction of filters has the support of the Clinton administration. In a previously unpublished letter, Larry Irving, then-assistant secretary for Communications and Information, wrote to FCC Chairman William Kennard: "We believe that empowering parents, teachers and librarians with a wide range of tools with which they can protect children in their community in a manner consistent with their values is ultimately the most effective approach and one that is most compatible with the First Amendment."
However, Congress has not acted on McCain's proposal, and Kennard politely circumvented the administration's plea by stating that while "this idea makes a lot of sense," all he is going to do is ask that "as schools around the country think about how they are going to use technology in the classroom, they should think about how to use it responsibly."
The need for action by Congress and/or the regulatory agencies is highlighted by the collapse of a move for self-regulation on the part of corporations collecting information about children age 13 or younger without parental consent.
Beginning in 1996, privacy advocates complained of unpalatable practices on children's Web sites. For instance, the Center for Media Education chided commercial Web sites that used cartoon characters or prizes to entice children to give up personal information about themselves and their parents, as well as track children's surfing.
The center maintained that information gathered from children put them in harm's way because it was feared that easy access to this information would help pedophiles contact children as well as expose them to targeted, deceptive advertising.
In response to such reports, the Online Privacy Alliance, Direct Marketing Association and several leading corporations offered to self-regulate, to commit themselves to stop such practices. But from the beginning, several leading corporations worried that they would be disadvantaged by what they called "bad actors" who might ignore the voluntary ban.
Industry attempts at self-regulation were found unsatisfactory. A survey conducted by the Federal Trade Commission in 1998 found that 89% of the 212 children's sites it studied collected at least one type of personal information from children. Only 1% required parental consent before the collection of information, and only 8% allowed parents to ask that personal information be deleted.
On another front, the FTC just sued Toysmart.com for unfair trade practices because it was about to sell personal information about children, in violation of its commitment not to do so. When Congress fails to act on behalf of children in these matters, and self-regulation seems not to be satisfactory, regulatory agencies step in. We shall see whether they can save the day.
Amitai Etzioni is a professor at George Washington University and author, most recently, of The Limits of Privacy.