Kids sites carefully negotiate the post-Coppa web environment
As the Internet world continues to evolve, so too has the need to safeguard kid surfers, for whom the Internet is constantly becoming more accessible. For kids under 13, anything interactive (instant messaging, e-cards, discussions boards and chat rooms) legally poses a safety risk, reinforcing the position that for any media outlet, there is a cost to being in kid cyberspace.
‘COPPA [Children's On-line Privacy Protection Act] has become something like an environmental issue in the world of on-line business,’ says Parry Aftab, executive VP of Internet kids advocacy group Cyberangels (www.cyberangels.org) and a kids Internet lawyer. ‘Everyone now steers away from doing business with companies that aren’t COPPA-compliant.’
The problems that come with providing on-line content for kids stem from the very same things that make the Internet such an appealing entertainment medium in the first place. Content, information collection and usage and characteristics of site visitors are just samples of the issues that COPPA and industry execs are grappling with these days.
Justin Williams, head of communities and overseer of Cartoon Orbit for Cartoon Network Online, is, like his competitors, trying to create fun entertainment that is safe for the audience and also legally compliant. But it’s not as simple as it seems. ‘The interpretation and application of the COPPA laws are obviously at the forefront of everything we develop,’ he explains. But it’s such a new law that Williams says its interpretation hasn’t really been firmly defined yet.
What is clearer is the need to protect kids from the dangers of open forums like chatrooms. Not only are they accessible to predators, but kids can say anything they want in them. While someone misusing the room or suspected to be an adult can get kicked out–which is why moderators are a must–there are concerns that Cyberangels’ Aftab says haven’t been completely addressed yet.
What do you do if kids start mentioning things like suicide or abuse? There are various rules that apply in those situations, Aftab admits, but the best course of action is to eliminate the possibility of that type of messaging in the first place.
Cartoon Orbit offers a good example of this technique put into play. The site is a trading hub based on a point system, where points are used to amass tradable icons called c-Toons. Some of the c-Toons will be produced in small enough numbers to breed the kind of scarcity that drives collectibility. Community interaction is encouraged as additional points are rewarded for each visitor your personal page gets, as well as for the number of pages you check out.
Kids (up to 850,000 at last count) can trade and talk freely, but that freedom is structured by a format of preselected text bytes. When they enter a chat area, kids have a list of messages they can choose from in order to communicate with each other. For trading, they’ll see: Want to trade? Yes. Not right now. For other conversations: Welcome back! Yo! Duh. You’re funny.
Another problem Cartoon Orbit has to deal with is the fact that it is membership-based. Such sites that require information from kid members have to be especially careful because they are closely monitored, and the laws that govern them can be grey. In Cartoon Orbit’s case, new members are asked for their e-mail address, age, gender, zip code and favorite cartoon–even though COPPA rules say that any inquiries about hobbies or interests are off-limits.
Not only are the laws peppered with grey areas–they’re also changing on a constant basis. Originally, COPPA stipulated that a site for kids couldn’t request an exact date of birth, just an age in years. If the response is under 13, then the site must ask for a parent’s e-mail so that an adult can approve the process. If someone under 13 joins, many sites then want to know when that member will be over 13, what part of the country they’re from, whether they’re a boy or a girl, that sort of thing. So the FTC has now ruled that you can ask for a date of birth, reasoning that it makes it harder for kids to misrepresent their age.
The next step is nailing down how sites can store the information they gather. For marketers, this type of data is invaluable, and while their aims may be well-intentioned, who knows where the personal information could end up?
Foxkids.com, however, decided to avoid the inherent problems that membership-based sites experience altogether by making brand extension its sole purpose. ‘Between 40% and 50% of our traffic is in games,’ says Allison Ellis, VP and GM of Foxkids.com, with the rest going to program support areas and original content. ‘We made an active decision to stay away from community features.’ If the site is running a sweepstakes, for example, only the winner is contacted, and any e-mail addresses obtained are immediately purged.
Plus, instead of relying on collecting information, she says trends and demographics can be established through monitoring the traffic and audience feedback. But Ellis stresses that the Foxkids.com model isn’t a good fit for every site, and one infraction could taint your on-line reputation forever.
‘There’s no room for survival if you’re not perfect,’ says Aftab. Ideally, you need a lawyer–someone versed in cyber law. Aftab serves chiefly as a web safety spokesperson for Disney, but her list of clients also includes Colgate.com, eKids, Learning.com, Surfmonkey.com, Yahoo, Lycos and Zeeks.com. But the legality of editorial content might not be the only thing about which Aftab will have to advise her clients in the future.
As Internet ad-based models become more viable, they too can be a problem. Fox Kids’ Ellis generates a lot of kid feedback for use in content development, and sometimes that info is also used to fine-focus marketing initiatives. COPPA hasn’t extended its reach to advertising yet, although it is an issue. Sites are generating cash flow from advertising, but as a kids entertainment service, they must clearly identify the ad and ensure that it’s sending appropriate messages.
In the TV world, kids are protected by The Children’s Advertising Review Unit. One element of CARU’s guidelines seems a little precarious if applied to the Internet world. The principle is called ‘Endorsement and Promotion by Program or Editorial Characters,’ meaning that you can’t run an ad featuring, let’s say, Smurfs merch during the Smurfs animated series. Given the content-on-demand nature of the Net, this type of mandate would be much harder for websites to fulfill. ‘As it stands now, as long as you clearly identify ads as ads, you should be fine,’ reasons Mindy Stockfield, director of marketing for Cartoon Network Online. But she is worried that eventually on-line advertising will find itself under legal scrutiny.
Aftab disagrees with the argument for regulating on-line ads, affirming that kids are savvy enough to distinguish between an ad and editorial content. Plus, she says most sites are doing a good job at clearly separating the ads–often taking the user out of editorial environments and stating quite clearly, ‘You are now leaving to enter a sponsored area.’ Going one step further, at the top of every page of its website, Mattel runs a disclaimer announcing that the page could contain product information and advertising materials.
For parents looking for a surefire on-line safety solution, Silvertech’s eKids Internet, which launched in August 2000, is a good alternative to the web. It’s independent from the Net and can currently only be accessed by CD-ROM software (although the content will soon be downloadable) that, in turn, directs users to the private network. The model is a little slow for kids, ‘who like instant everything,’ admits Silvertech founder and CEO El St. John, ‘but it’s solid, and there are three million registered users worldwide.’
Another boon for concerned parents is that the site is advertising-free. Instead, it’s financed by sponsors, Silvertech’s other ventures (eLawyer, eMovies, eDistributor) and, just recently, via a usage charge for educational content. However, if money is a sticking point, eKids offers volunteer tutors for home schooling. Membership is free, no one has access to the network except a member, and it is constantly monitored to make sure predators haven’t infiltrated.
The catch, it seems, is in meeting myriad global standards for safety. ‘Every government has its own monitoring policy,’ says St. John, and while most governments want the Internet monitored, they don’t want other governments to have access to their networks. So St. John sells the format or develops a network specific to that government’s parameters, charging a licensing fee and monthly service fees.
Also, if St. John sets a safety standard under government regulation, she wants to be subsidized for it. In the end, the result is a network that doesn’t exist to make money, so while it is expensive to fund, it does also make for a safe environment. ‘No one cares how many kids we have except the money people,’ she says. ‘And I don’t care about them–forgive me for saying that.’
Not everyone can afford to take that approach, though. And at the end of the day, like any form of entertainment or community venue, there are going to be some safety issues. Many players in the industry say that part of the responsibility for keeping kids safe on-line has to fall onto parents’ shoulders. Kids’ web activities should be monitored in the same way that their TV viewing or magazine purchases are. ‘Don’t take candy from strangers’ takes on new meaning, but applies all the more these days.