Chasing Children

PC Pitstop has mentioned the problem with spyware and kids before, but last week’s CNet spyware conference showed it isn’t going to be easy getting quick and meaningful action on this issue. It’s too bad. While some adware makers like WhenU seemed to be genuinely interested in changing their ways, others like Claria seemed intentionally evasive and unwilling to change any of their practices.

In the panel on end user license agreements (EULAs), Ben Edelman and I pointed out that Claria was advertising on a site made for children. (Ben has some more details on the events of that panel.) Kids clearly don’t have the judgement or legal standing to accept a EULA. (I know this judgement part from from experience, I have two kids.) In response, panelist Christine Varney said “…advertising to children is not illegal in this country.” Ms. Varney is a former head of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), so I was surprised that she didn’t see any existing FTC rules that seem to be relevant in this situation.

Claria’s advertising to children is very different from, as an example, Mattel advertising Barbie to children on Saturday morning cartoons. In that case, parents retain control since they must provide the money for the purchase and/or take the children to the store. Claria–really, this whole industry–has bypassed that parental control; a child of any age can simply click a few on-screen buttons to initiate the gradual decline of the family PC.

There is, however, a very good analogy: the 900 telephone number. These are numbers that often cost several dollars a minute and provide such useful services as psychic hot lines, women talking dirty, or betting tips. Even young children are taught how to use the telephone, often so they can dial 911 in an emergency. Why don’t companies try to make money with a 900 number pitch targeted at children? “Hey kids, talk to your favorite Care Bear, just dial 1-900-CARE-BEAR!” The reason is simple: the FTC has ruled that these tactics can’t be used. Even without further laws in this area, the FTC’s 900-number rules seem to set a precedent for the FTC to protect families by prohibiting Internet advertisements that are placed to lure children into actions they should not take.

eZone, the company identified above by Ben Edelman as showing Claria ads, said that it “meets the guidelines of TRUSTe’s Children’s program,” or at least it said that when Ben evaluated the site. That claim has now been removed from eZone.

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