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Group Files Complaint About Kids’ Internet Site

May 14, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A group that wants television and computers to be more educational asked the government Monday to investigate an Internet web site it says lures kids to advertisements and marketing surveys, by posing as educational.

The Federal Trade Commission said it would look into the Center for Media Education’s complaint against the KidsCom web site, operated by SpectraCom Inc. of Milwaukee, Wis.

``All these issues concerning children we take very seriously,″ said FTC spokeswoman Victoria Streitfeld.

But SpectraCom officials insisted their web site does not exploit children.

The company does, at one spot on the site, occasionally gather information from children about their likes and dislikes, using ``standard marketing techniques″ that site developer Jorian Clarke compared to asking people questions in shopping malls.

The information, minus the children’s names, is passed on to the company that paid for the survey, Clarke said. The area on the site that asks these questions is optional, and includes a line encouraging children to get parents’ permission, she said.

Most of the site is educational or games, Clarke asserted.

But the media education center strongly disagreed. ``It was set up by a marketing firm with the sole purpose of monitoring children’s on-line behavior, collecting personal data and aggressively promoting products,″ said president Kathryn Montgomery.

The media watchdog group last month released a report alleging that several firms, including SpectraCom, have designed web sites _ places on the Internet where companies or individuals can be reached _ ``to capture the loyalty and spending power″ of children.

The group alleges that some sites invade children’s privacy by requesting personal information, through promises of prizes or otherwise. Others exploit children by weaving products and pitches to buy with activities like sending e-mail or playing games, it says.

The center recommended labeling ads and separating them from editorial content.

The FTC does not regulate ads for children over the Internet. But its jurisdiction over deceptive market practices does extend to the computer network. The agency plans a conference next month on the issue of privacy in cyberspace, with one day devoted to children’s issues.

On SpectraCom’s web site, children also are asked to fill out questionnaires that include favorite TV show, commercials, musical groups and interests. They are offered points for their responses that can be used to ``buy″ items including video games and cookies.

The company says it asks those questions to match children worldwide with electronic pen pals. And those questions are in a separate area from the occasional marketing surveys it also conducts, Clarke said.

In another section of the site, called ``New Stuff for Kids,″ the company ``implies that it has looked into all the new games on the market and has chosen the best ones to display,″ the media center said. But, it alleged, the firm only mentions products whose manufacturers have made product donations of $1,000 or more, the group said.

Clarke replied that the group also had solicited nonprofit groups to present information. Overall, the site is meant to be entertaining and educational, and developers try hard to get parents involved, she said.

The media center, a nonprofit organization, received most financing for its web-site project from the Carnegie Corporation in New York.