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FTC Testifies on Social Networking Sites

Doyle, Barlow & Mazard PLLC

The Federal Trade Commission today called on social networking sites to make sure children visiting their sites can stay safe and their parents can protect them. Testifying for the FTC, Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce,Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation that there is a “need for social networking Web sites – individually, collectively, and, most importantly, expeditiously – to develop and implement safety features to protect children who visit their sites and empower parents to protect their children when they do so.” Harbour also emphasized that, “the Federal Trade Commission is committed to helping create a safer online experience for children.”
The testimony describes FTC actions to protect children online through consumer education and law enforcement. Last month, the FTC provided advice for parents and children about safely using social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and others. The tips are featured on one of the most popular sections of OnGuard Online, an online education resource covering safe and secure computing.

“At the same time that social networking Web sites offer online communication, camaraderie, and community among teens and tweens, they, like other activities on the Internet, also can pose risks,” the testimony states. “Because the information that children post on their online journals, web logs or 'blogs' can be accessed by other Internet users, social networking Web sites raise heightened privacy and security concerns. In particular, sexual predators may use the information that children provide on social networking sites to identify, contact, and exploit them, unless these sites are constructed to reduce access to this information, or users themselves take steps to limit unwanted access.”

The FTC also enforces the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires Web site operators to take several steps before they collect, use, or disclose personal information from a child under the age of 13. COPPA also requires that operators notify parents about their Web site's privacy policies and obtain verifiable consent from a parent or guardian before collecting personal information from children. Web site operators also must establish and maintain reasonable procedures to protect the confidentiality, security, and integrity of the personal information they collect. The testimony noted that the FTC staff currently is investigating several social networking Web sites to determine whether they are complying.

“The social networking industry has a clear incentive to create a safe online community,” the testimony notes. “They owe this to their users, and sites that do not make online safety a priority may find it hard to compete with those that do. Some social networking Web sites already allow users to restrict access to the information they post, such as by creating sites with more closed, defined communities or enhancing specific privacy features on their sites.”

The Commission vote to approve the testimony was 5-0.

Camelia C. Mazard

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