Disney: The mouse that won't roar

The media giant restricts children's access to unmoderated chat rooms, citing restrictive and confusing industry regulations
Written by Ben Charny, Contributor

Entertainment giant Walt Disney has stopped letting anyone under the age of 12 into its unmoderated chat rooms, joining a growing number of kids' Web sites restricting online interaction.

The decision was made voluntarily after the Council of Better Business Bureaus found 12-year-olds could access chat rooms on Disney's Go.com network, where sexually charged chats were frequently reported and children could post their home addresses and telephone numbers.

The Walt Disney Internet Group has also installed session cookies, which have been in use since 1997 at other Web sites. The cookies are supposed to stop children ejected from a chat room from re-registering as adults.

The decision affects not only Go.com, but ESPN.com, ABC.com and other properties in the Disney stable of Web sites.

It was a voluntary decision that went beyond industry rules and regulations. But Mickey Mouse wasn't exactly smiling about it.

"Several of our protections even go above the requirements of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act," Disney wrote to the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which investigated Disney sites earlier this year.

"Regrettably, the overbearing scrutiny of children's sites and disparity of interpretation of law and guidelines by federal regulators and advocacy groups may ultimately result in fewer and fewer options for kids to interact on the Web," Disney wrote.

Disney is perhaps the largest child-oriented site to pull some of its interactive elements. Fifteenth-ranked children's portal Zeeks.com pulled all of its interactive elements. Some have cited the costs of moderating chat -- others blame potential legal problems.

CARU has some sympathy for the phalanx of regulations that kids' sites face, a spokeswoman said. But it is far more sympathetic to children.

"If companies that operate Web sites want kids to interact, all they have to do is have a monitor there," said Phyllis Spaeth, CARU staff attorney. "If you really want to do it, it's quite possible. It's not as if it can't be done."

CARU investigated the WDIG earlier in the year. WDIG oversees Disney.com and its Zoog, Zeether, and Club Blast areas. The main Disney page used to link to Go.com, which has chat rooms like Teen Chat, Flirt Room, and Love Chat.

As part of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act, in May Disney sent letters to all minors already registered. CARU faulted the letter for not disclosing that some chat rooms in the Go.com areas "contain personal photographs, some in sexual poses, and graphic sexual conversation, including offers to participate in cybersex". CARU also faulted Disney for the way it registers minors. It asked children whether they wanted to register in three different age groupings. The ages for each group were listed on the registration page.

Despite its vehement denial of any wrongdoing, Disney altered the registration page, no longer listing the ages of its groups. CARU said when ages were listed, teen-agers were tempted to "register up" in age.

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