Highlights for Children is a general interest non-sectarian educational magazine for children aged preschool to preteen with a circulation of between 2 and 2.5 million copies per month and maybe twice that readership. It is available only by subscription delivered to children at home in their own names. The company has grown steadily over its fifty four years of existence by offering quality wholesome material for kids. We are very philosophically driven and choose not to accept paid advertizing because we believe it is inappropriate for an educational publication such as ours.
We appreciate the opportunity to comment upon the proposed rules regarding the online collection of personally identifiable information from children under the age of 13 because it is an issue that certainly will have a profound impact upon the course of our development as an educational publisher. We especially appreciate the delicate issues involved in protecting children from the negative influences found on the Internet without eliminating the rich and positive educational and culturally positive influences that will be there as well.
While the goals of the act and the proposed rules are laudable and while we realize that the FTC has devoted considerable effort in trying to develop rules which will achieve those goals, we believe there are some serious issues which may lead to unintended and unwanted consequences.
Having been in the business of communicating with children and their parents, teachers, doctors and dentists for over fifty years and having achieved a position of considerable trust with each of these constituencies we feel that we are well qualified to address some of these issues. We are concerned that there may be other groups which may also be able to contribute valuable insight but which may not even be aware of the issues being debated. There are certainly many organizations which have more experience with the Internet than we do but most of them have had relatively little experience dealing with families and children. We hope that there will be opportunities for a more extensive dialogue to take place. Our experience online with kids includes several years of hosting a Highlights site on the America Online kids channel which we discontinued about 9 months ago and recent participation in a startup hybrid CD/online subscription service called Junior Net which offers content from a variety of children magazines.
There are several particular issues which deserve your consideration. Unfortunately, we do not have answers to these issues but by raising the questions we believe we may at least point out some unexpected and unintended consequences of the rules as proposed:
1. The idea of "parents" needs further definition. What is a web operator to do when two parents, perhaps divorced, give conflicting instructions or ask for information that may have been collected from a child?
2. The proposed rules do not seem to address collection of data from children by other than commercial organizations. Does it make sense to impose severe restrictions on for-profit organizations and not to apply the same restrictions to not-for-profit organizations? The goals and objectives, which don't seem to have much to do with commerce, would definitely seem to have as much relevance in either the for-profit or the not-for-profit areas. Among magazines for children, for example, World Magazine (National Geographic), Sesame Street (Children's Television Workshop), Ranger Rick (National Wildlife Federation), Zillions (Consumers Reports), Children's Playmate, Children's Digest, Jack and Jill, US Kids and several others (Benjamin Franklin Medical and Literary Arts Society), Guidepost for Kids and many other magazines produced by not-for-profit organizations compete directly with Highlights for Children, Cricket Magazine, Discovery Magazine, Disney Adventures, Sports Illustrated for Kids, Crayola Kids, Weekly Reader, and many other for-profit groups. All of these organizations are going to have to find ways to define themselves in terms of the Internet in order to survive in the future and if they are subject to vastly different regulations the result will be problematic in that they will be playing on vastly different fields. It doesn't seem equitable and it doesn't seem like it serves the interest of the act in protecting kids.
3. Highlights annually receives over 40,000 letters to the editor and other submissions from children subscribers and non-subscribers alike. We write a personal letter to each child from whom we receive a letter. Currently only a few of these communications are on-line but we anticipate that the number will grow. We publish some of our answers to these questions and submissions in our magazine. We fear that we may incur liability as a result of the proposed rules.
4. We are very concerned that requiring that we divulge whatever information that we may have collected from children could become very difficult and burdensome given the amounts of information that we currently collect about families. Our data includes: children's names, parent names, addresses, phone number, age of child and of other children in the household, sex, teacher's name, school name and address, gift giver (donor) name and address and relationship, purchasing activity, and some other information. These pieces of information are not collected from children but rather from adults who reveal it to us voluntarily in the course of our contact with them. They are very valuable to us in our marketing efforts, i.e. renewals, notifications about other products and services we offer, etc. Currently we do not collect any information from children and we do not mix data that a child may have given us in a submission or letter to the editor with the marketing data. We do not even have a web site oriented toward children for a variety of reasons, a major one of which is that we don't wish to appear to be suggesting that kids being on the web unsupervised is a good idea. But we view our eventual presence on the web as inevitable and when that happens there will be certain information that we will view as necessary to collect and maintain in order to make the web experience valuable. We may wish for example to use the web and links to other sites as a "value added" enhancement for those children who are actually subscribers and it would be necessary for us to identify them as subscribers to the magazine to provide access. We may wish to create "community" among our subscribers by somehow enabling contact between or among subscribers either in order to facilitate classroom to classroom contact or subscriber to subscriber contact (or many other conceivable combinations). Of course we would not do this without insuring to the greatest extent possible the safety of the children and we freely admit that we do not have that worked out yet.
5. The requirement to tell a "parent" what information we have collected from their child becomes difficult. The largest problem is knowing that indeed a person is the parent of the child in question. We normally would not hesitate to repeat information back to someone who had given it to us. How we know for sure that a person is who they say they are and that they are a person to whom we should reveal sensitive information about a child becomes very problematic. We can even imagine that we might be forced to reveal data to someone who shouldn't have the data or who might do the child harm in order to avoid the liability connected with the possibility that we would not be complying with the rule. How do we explain even to a parent who demands the information that we have no information from their child but we have lots of data on them or their family that we are not required to reveal or delete from our records? (So that there is no question: we honor any request by a customer or prospect, ie to refrain from contacting them for example, but in order to do that we must keep a record of who they are and what they have asked us to do.) We do not currently "delete" any data that we may have but we do code it so as to insure that we can react appropriately to the wishes of the customer or prospect. Also, if a customer or prospect indicates that they do not wish us to divulge data to third parties, we honor the request.
We believe that the burdens imposed by the proposed rules will make life so hopelessly complex for us that we will need a team of lawyers to serve as customer service representatives. We further believe that there is a real possibility that the FTC in conveying these rules could possibly induce a false sense of security among parents that their children are safe on line when in fact they are not.
6. While Highlights is a relatively large organization with considerable resources devoted to the activities of dealing with the information that we gather, and we could probably find ways of dealing with the issues that the commission has proposed (which we would do without urging from any regulatory body), we find it very difficult to imagine how such rules will affect the future development of good-hearted people who wish to find a way to assist children and families over the Internet. One of the beautiful things about the Internet is the creative power that it is unleashing among entrepreneurs. There are few barriers to entry in this new industry. Capital used to be a significant barrier to entry for a person wishing to become a magazine publisher. That is wiped away by the Internet but it would be a shame if burdensome regulations were to take the place of the burden of raising capital. We would urge the commission to consider the fact that any action it takes with respect to this new technology in its implementation as it relates to children could easily become a significant hindrance to the development of something that could be very good for kids and families. This is especially true of very small embryonic organizations.
Perhaps the most important point that we would wish to make is to urge the Commission to adopt maximum flexibility in developing rules which will govern the activity and development of this new technology and the industry that employs it to create a potentially very rich learning environment. While these rules may provide some protection for kids they will have the potential to seriously interfere with the valuable aspects of this new technology. That could be a terrible price to pay for the very slight benefit that might be derived.
This comment is not organized or presented in the manner requested by the Commission and for that we apologize. We hope that we might have the opportunity to participate in any workshops or dialogues that may held so that we may provide whatever information may be of use to the Commission in its efforts to implement the Act.
Garry C. Myers III, CEO