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Companies engaged in direct marketing to consumers must not use the internet to gather data about children under 12 and must be able to back up any green claims they make, according to a new code of practice for the industry.

The Direct Marketing Association has published a new version of its Code of Practice, the set of rules governing members' activities. Though the Code has no legal status, members of the DMA must abide by it according to the Association's rules.

The Code advises companies not to collect personal information from children under 12 without parental consent or information about other people from children under 16. The previous Code contained different age cut-offs for online and offline activities, a distinction that has been abolished in the new Code.

The guidance on children's data brings the Code into line with rules set by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), which sets the rules governing advertising in the UK and recently published its own revised guidance.

The new version of the Code is the DMA's fourth since the creation of the Code in 1992 and updates the trade body's rules in the light of changes in legislation since the third edition.

"This new edition of the Code has been updated to include all recent changes to relevant legislation, including data protection, consumer credit, prize draws, telemarketing, and consumer protection," said DMA chair David Metcalfe in the Code.

The Code also includes rules governing the claims that companies make relating to the impact of their services on the environment. Advertising regulators have begun to clamp down on 'greenwashing', the practice of misleadingly implying that products or services are more environmentally friendly than they are.

"For the first time the DM Code sets out a series of guidelines concerning the use of data hygiene, making environmental claims in marketing materials, sourcing of sustainable paper, certification in environmental standards such as PAS 2020, adhering to a corporate environmental policy and using recycling messages on printed materials," said a DMA statement.

Metcalfe said that the Code was important if the industry was to avoid statutory regulation.

"Government and regulators in the UK and European Union exert a constant pressure on the marketing industry to deliver effective and accountable standards of consumer protection," he said. "The best way to head-off onerous statutory controls is to maintain an effective self-regulatory system."

The DMA's director of legal and public affairs recently told technology law podcast OUT-LAW Radio that the changes to the Code made it clear that companies whose services might be attractive to children had to be aware of their duties when it came to marketing to, and collecting data from, them.

"I think if you know you are dealing with children or with young people, you do have to make sure that you are treating them appropriately and even if your site is not primarily aimed at young people, if there is a possibility that it would be attractive to them, again you have a responsibility," she said.

Copyright © 2010, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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