Protecting Children's Privacy

It's no secret that young people are increasingly the target of savvy marketers. From credit-card offers to shaving products, the tide of offers sent to youths at their homes just keeps rising. And teens are responding. According to research, American teens spent an estimated $170 billion in 2001, $15 billion more than in 2000.

Part of that phenomenon stems from the ability to buy and sell personal data and demographic information about children and younger teens for commercial marketing purposes - without parental consent. This practice should be stopped.

Companies routinely sell lists of millions of kids' names and personal information about children as young as 2 years of age to would-be marketers. For example, on its website, American Student List brags about its ability to "offer over 20 million students" to marketers. It states: "We make it easy to target your promotions with pinpoint accuracy." The company includes kids ages 2 to 13.

Another outfit, the Student Marketing Group, promises, "No matter what age group you want to reach, [we have] the names and list management services you need." Unfortunately, that information usually includes a child's name, address, age, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and extracurricular activities, along with parental income.

Not much is known about how companies get such information. And it's personal information that could be used for more sinister purposes than marketing.

A TV station in Oregon recently set up an e-mail account, using the name of an individual who's awaiting trial in the deaths of two Oregon City girls. They were able to buy the parents' names and addresses of more than 3,000 children ages 5 to 14 from an online marketing database company - no questions asked.

A Democrat and a Republican on Capitol Hill teamed up last week to introduce legislation that would keep so-called "list broker" companies from violating the privacy of children under 16.

The bill is sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon and Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska. Mr. Wyden hopes the bill would prevent "large-scale commercial marketing to the nation's smallest children" by prohibiting the sale of personal information about young people without parental consent.

Children clearly deserve such protection.

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