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Complaint to FTC Says Amazon.com Violates Children's Privacy Law

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By David McGuire
washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, April 23, 2003; Page E02

Privacy and consumer-advocacy groups yesterday asked federal regulators to investigate Amazon.com Inc., claiming that the online retail giant lets children post personal information on its Web site in violation of a federal law.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Media Access Project and other groups said Amazon lets children post product reviews, which sometimes include their names, e-mail addresses or other personal data. A 1998 law, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, requires Web sites to get parental consent before allowing children under the age of 13 to post information.

By targeting Amazon.com, EPIC lawyers said they hoped to persuade the FTC to extend enforcement of the law to retailers that sell children's products or market to them. The rules have been applied to sites that have designated children's areas for games or other activities.

That would exclude sites such as Amazon.com. But EPIC argued that FTC rules also allow other factors, such as whether sites display images of children or employ typography or content that appeals to children, to trigger the law.

If the Federal Trade Commission investigates and agrees with EPIC's interpretation, it could make electronic retailers reconsider how they market children's products.

Amazon is the online retailer for several toy companies, including Toys R Us. The site allows users to search for toys based on age group, and enables children to post reviews of toys. EPIC said it found several reviews that contained personal information posted by children, including real names, hometowns and ages.

Amazon lawyer David A. Zapolsky said the site is not governed by the privacy act but it has never intended identifying information on children to be posted. He said the posts cited in the complaint will be removed.

"We are not a site that's directed at children," Amazon spokesman Bill Curry said. "We're a store. We sell things, and you need a credit card to buy them. When it comes to reviews, we created special software for anonymous reviews by children under 13."

The consumer groups said in their complaint: "Amazon uses brightly colored tabs to designate portions of the site that contain children's books, children's videos, children's music, and children's software. Amazon uses colorful and child-like fonts for this portion of the site. . . . It is likely that many children locate and visit Amazon's Toy Store site when shopping for toys online."

FTC spokeswoman Claudia Bourne Farrell said the commission will review the complaint, but did not say whether it will investigate Amazon.

Peter P. Swire, an Ohio State University law professor and an adviser to President Bill Clinton when he signed the privacy law, said a federal investigation into Amazon could reverberate throughout the industry.

"If Amazon is hit with a fine, other e-commerce sites will call their own lawyers immediately," he said.

Mrs. Fields' Original Cookies Inc. and Hershey Foods Corp. in February agreed to pay $100,000 and $85,000, respectively, to settle FTC charges that they collected personal data from children.

Those penalties, the largest to be imposed under the privacy law, mark an increased push to bring companies into compliance with the law as it approaches its third anniversary, FTC lawyer Beth Delaney said.

The FTC last year warned more than 50 companies that their Web sites violated the privacy law, after which most of them changed their sites to comply, Delaney said.

Washington Post staff writer Jonathan Krim contributed to this report.


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