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FTC: Thumbs up for America's online child protection laws

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America's laws protecting children's privacy online are working just fine, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). But just to make sure, it will slap violators with bigger fines.

Signed into law in 2000, The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) has seen the FTC bring just 12 companies to task over how they compile and use data collected from children aged 13 and under.

But in a progress report released today, the FTC said COPPA was "effective in helping to protect the privacy and safety of young children online".

More than half of the $1.8m in COPPA fines levied to date comes from September's settlement with the social network Xanga, which had collected and disclosed personal data from children without parental consent. The FTC offers websites "safe harbor" from prosecution if they voluntarily adopt COPPA's rules.

The FTC stresses the need for sites pitched at a general audience to redouble age verification efforts, as they can fall foul of COPPA if they have knowledge that children's data may be being collected, used or disclosed to other parties. Last month, for example, MySpace answered complaints over the ease with which pedophiles and other sexual predators roamed the site, by promising to let parents monitor their children's activities. But such a move is not enough to absolve it of COPPA responsibilities.

Some fringe critics say COPPA stomps children's Constitutional rights, but this has never been tested in the courts. According to the FTC, there is no evidence the Act has reduced diversity of or access to websites for children.

The FTC began its review in 2005 with a call for evidence from industry, interest groups and the public.

In a joint submission, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Consumer Federation of America, and others urged the FTC to clarify its rules on what constitutes a website "directed at children" under the terms of the Act.

The legal eagles at Redmond find COPPA something of a minefield too: in its submission Microsoft also pushed for clarification. The FTC rejects this call in its recommendations to Congress.

By contrast, The Direct Marketing Association and Nickelodeon children's said COPPA is clear enough as it stands. You can find the submissions here.

Confusingly, COPPA's near-namesake the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which related to internet pornography, was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 2004. ®

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