March 10, 2010

New Maine law spins a tangled Web

— Life would be so much easier if we could just stop little Johnny and Jill from going on the Internet until they're old enough to smoke and vote.

But since that's not the case, we wind up with laws like Maine's new ''Act to Prevent Predatory Marketing Practices against Minors.''

The law, signed in June, may have flown under your radar, lost amid the legislative fireworks over tax changes, gay marriage and other issues.

The law makes it illegal for anyone (or a Web site) to collect health or other personal information from anyone under 18 for marketing purposes without getting parental consent. The penalty for companies that break the law is up to $20,000.

Depending on whom you ask, Maine is set to either protect the young'uns, or unleash a flood of lawsuits against Web sites.

Already, worried trade groups and online companies are knocking at the state's door, even though the law does not go into effect until Sept. 12.

''This will expose the nation's best Internet Web sites, those that offer information and commerce to teens, to significant lawsuit risks,'' said Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice.

NetChoice, an online advocacy group, recently put Maine's law at the top of its list of the 10 worst laws or proposals targeting the Internet.

NetChoice members include eBay, NewsCorp (owners of MySpace, among other sites), Overstock.com and Expedia.com.

Clearly these are companies that have more than a little interest in marketing (and selling) to minors.

DelBianco says the law would affect the simplest online interactions that require name and age to register for service.

At the moment, many sites don't have the ability to verify something like parental consent, he said. And that -- again, potentially -- could mean lawsuits against those sites by parents, DelBianco said.

On top of paying penalties to the state, companies face paying damages in any lawsuits, he said.

NetChoice wants to work with the state to fix the law, but if necessary, will consider seeking an injunction to stop it from going into effect, he said.

''It's not about embarrassing Maine,'' DelBianco said. ''It's about focusing Maine and fixing the problem before Sept. 12.''

One potential conflict with the Maine law is a federal law, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, which covers the collection of data on children under age 13.

State Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, who sponsored the Maine measure, said its intent is to expand on COPPA and prevent minors from sharing sensitive health information online, not to prevent Web sites or other companies from marketing.

Schneider said kids may unknowingly be giving away private information in online surveys because of incentives such as iPods or other gadgets. It's the type of information that would be illegal for places like schools to provide, Schneider said.

''My concern is it's the equivalent for minors of a stranger knocking on their door,'' she said.

Schneider said she has already been contacted by lobbyists working for companies concerned about the law. She said she has no problem working with online companies to amend it.

''Clearly, I don't want to water the bill down and not make it effective,'' she said. But she said the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee, which she chairs, is ''willing to work with the industry to make it something that is not a threat.''

Ryan Calo, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, said that traditionally, areas such as personal identification, health information and anything identifying minors have warranted greater protection under the law.

Calo said different types of services require different types of identification online. Some sites simply require a working e-mail address, while others call for a full name and birth date, he said.

Sites such as Facebook or Amazon.com place a premium on personal information because it's necessary for service, Calo said.

''If you have a service that cares who you are, or requires money, you will have to introduce some kind of identification,'' he said.

That information is important so companies can verify members' identities, but also because it can be used for marketing, he said.

Still, the issue of personal data is tricky with minors. In the event that a company wants to verify age or parental permission to use a site, it would need contact information, he said.

Kate Simmons, a spokeswoman for the Maine Attorney General's Office, said the state has met with an AOL representative about the company's concerns with the law.

The Attorney General's Office currently does not have any rules or procedures in place to enforce the law, Simmons said.

Because no one can file a complaint under the law until Sept. 12, the AG's Office is waiting to see what happens.

Along with the rest of us.

Staff Writer Justin Ellis can be contacted at 791-6380. Read his blog at:

www.pressherald.com

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