Preteens On-Line

It took tough sheriffs to tame the Wild West. But will tough law tame the wild Internet?

The first big experiment in regulating cyberspace began last month when a law took effect that allows states to prosecute owners of Web sites who don't follow rigorous rules when they deal with a child under 13 years old (see story on page 17).

In protecting preteens from the Web's potential abuses, Congress decided that the Internet industry could not be trusted with self-regulation in this area.

In coming weeks, we'll see whether the law creates chaos or clarity. Commercial Web sites are rushing to accommodate public concerns about on-line privacy.

In a way, the law and the market are in a race to see which will be the better cybernanny and can make the world safe for e-commerce, kid chat rooms, and the digital universe.

The Child Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, requires, among other things, that sites which "know" they are collecting information from a child under 13 first get a parent's permission - in writing. Any number of Web sites (such as cyberangels.org), software, and other help is available for parents to guide children on safe use of the Web.

We hope this act isn't overkill or, worse, that it hinders the Web's many offerings. How, for instance, will a site operator know if a visitor is under 13?

The task of safeguarding children starts with parents. If they find this law's rules work for them, then Congress did the right thing.

But this experiment bears watching closely.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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