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Bill protecting kids' online privacy advances

Published: Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 5:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 6, 2013 at 10:46 a.m.

With more children than ever tweeting, texting and socially networking online, a bill aimed at protecting their digital privacy proved a hit in Sacramento last week, passing the Senate on a 37-0 vote.

Facts

Teens' online social life

Ages 13 to 17
Have used social media — 90%
Profile on social networking site — 75%
Visit social networking sites daily - 51%
Visit main networking site several times daily — 34%
Facebook as main networking site — 68%
Source: Common Sense Media Research Study, 2012

Privacy advocates hailed the bill, which includes a requirement that social media sites provide a so-called "eraser button" allowing minors under 18 to remove their own ill-advised postings.

"Too often a teenager will post an inappropriate picture or statement that in the moment seems frivolous or fun, but that they later regret," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the bill's author, in a written statement.

"The eraser button really matters," said James Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that collaborated with Steinberg on the measure.

If the law is enacted, Steyer said it will require websites to apply their "technical wizardry" to developing the user-operated delete buttons. "They will figure it out," he said.

But Internet experts cited some potential drawbacks to the idea.

Facebook, the dominant social networking site for teens, can easily erase a user's page but can't retract content that a youth's friends have downloaded and reposted, said Leo Laporte of Petaluma, an online tech show host.

Laporte, a father of two, said he appreciates the hazards of instantaneous, international and possibly indelible communication.

"I think many people, including teenagers, post stuff online that they'll eventually regret," he said in an e-mail.

But the "likely result" of a law such as Steinberg's "will be to force sites to block users under 18 entirely."

Dane Jasper, CEO of Sonic.net, a Santa Rosa-based Internet provider, said it is impossible to identify the age of Internet users and difficult to pinpoint their location.

Most mainstream social media sites allow users to delete their presence online and some allow deletion of a specific posting, Jasper said.

But once someone else downloads a posting, such as an embarrassing photograph, there is no getting it back. "You are closing the barn door after the horse is out," Jasper said.

Young people have committed suicide after experiencing widespread ridicule from an online posting. He said the goals of the proposed state law are "laudable," but "the solutions are impractical."

And to avoid a chaotic array of state regulations, the Internet should be regulated by national laws, Jasper said.

The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, a federal law updated last year, provides protections for children under 13 and does not include an "eraser button" requirement.

Steinberg's bill extends privacy protection to Internet users under age 18.

Larry Magid of Palo Alto, an Internet safety advocate, said in a recent blog that millions of children under 13 gain access to Facebook by lying about their age, in many cases with help from their parents.

Steyer, whose organization includes Chelsea Clinton and Giants president Larry Baer among its directors and advisers, called the proposed California law "a step in the right direction."

"Self-regulation (by the Internet industry) is a myth," he said. "You have to have a code of conduct."

Steinberg's bill prohibits websites, online services and applications "directed to minors" from marketing or advertising products that minors cannot legally purchase or use in California.

If a newspaper, for example, maintained a website "specifically for kids," it could not carry advertisements for tobacco, guns or alcohol, said Mark Hedlund, an aide to Steinberg.

Jim Ewert, the California Newspaper Publishers Association general counsel, said the prohibition could apply to many other websites, like an online restaurant menu that lists alcoholic beverages.

"Overly broad is an understatement," Ewert said, noting that Steinberg's measure had "flown under the radar" in Sacramento.

A general website is not covered by the bill unless it has "actual knowledge" that a person under 18 is accessing it, Hedlund said.

Jasper, the Internet service provider, said that anonymity pervades cyberspace, recalling the famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon that shows two dogs at a desktop computer with the caption: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

Steinberg's bill also bans the collection of minors' personal information for the purpose of marketing or advertising products that minors cannot legally obtain.

The bill is now before the Assembly and, if approved, would take effect Jan. 1, 2015.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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