11/15/2011 06:00 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2011

Children's Online Privacy Panel: Kamala Harris, Jim Steyer & Mandeep Singh Dhillon Weigh In

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- "What u doin 2nite?"

"IDK. BTW Snooki wants 2 hang TOM."

"OMG WTF? total *facepalm*



California Attorney General Kamala Harris had just managed to successfully unnerve a group of about 100 parents and educators with this online exchange between two 16-year-olds. Those in the crowd, which had gathered Monday night at the Center For Early Education for a panel on children's online privacy, muttered worriedly among themselves as they tried to decipher the instant message language.

After explaining the first few acronyms ("I don't know," "By the way," and "Oh my god, what the f**k" were just some of the phrases), she zeroed in on the final two: "Down low" and "Not a lot of people know that."

Harris challenged the audience to "imagine that phrase, 'not a lot of people know that,' in a lot of different contexts" -- a scary thought exercise. As parents, she continued, "we don't want to think that there's a word -- an acronym -- for that expression." But there is, and it could hide everything from teen romances to cyber-bullying to something much worse.

Harris addressed the topic of Internet privacy with Jim Steyer, founder of the online advocacy group Common Sense Media, and Mandeep Singh Dhillon, inventor of Togetherville, a social network for children and parents. Huffington Post senior editor Willow Bay moderated the panel, and Common Sense Media hosted the event.

Harris didn't shy away from chilling what-if scenarios, perhaps because part of her job is to enforce laws against online predators, Internet identity theft and other e-crimes. But the panel as a whole emphasized that Internet safety for children was so much broader than the frequently-touted warnings against "stranger danger." In fact, Steyer said that "predatory stuff" was the least of his concerns when it came to his children interacting online.

Instead, Steyer prioritized the need for new privacy legislation with a seven-point approach to protecting both adults and children online. Among other things, Common Sense Media advocates that companies stop tracking all behavioral data for children and teens. It also supports the creation of an "eraser button" that could permanently delete a regrettable comment, photo or other data from the Internet.

"No matter how much I may personally like the industry leaders in Silicon Valley, most of them are, for the most part, engineers who pray at the altar of data," Steyer said. "I do not want my kids growing up in a world created by 20-something engineers of libertarian philosophies [who] believe that data is virtue."

He bemoaned the "total Wild West Scenario" that is the Internet, noting that the last time a federal law concerning online privacy was passed, "Mark Zuckerberg was in diapers." The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which was passed in 1998, has many limitations in addressing today's technology, Steyer and others said.

Dhillon disagreed. As an entrepreneur who invented a social network in order to interact online with his son, he argued that COPPA "stifles innovation."

In his view, millions of children on the Internet are underserved because COPPA has prevented any company from being able to create a safe space and "a really strong business in the interactive space for young children."

Children won't be "going to the site that doesn't give them any personalization," he said. Instead, he said, they'll be pushed toward sites that may be too mature or complex for them, and the combination of a child's impulsiveness and a parent's ignorance could be the catalyst for a huge mistake down the road.

That's where the importance of smart, strategic parenting comes in -- and despite the panelists' diverging views on the effectiveness of law (Steyer was pro-legislation, Dhillon was skeptical, and Harris was wary of the slow legislative process), all three of them agreed that strict boundaries from parents, as well as constant engagement with their children, are the strongest protections against Internet danger.

Questions from the audience ranged from tech integration in classrooms to common sense tips on how to monitor children's activities online. Miranda Payne, the parent of an elementary school-aged child and an educator at Marlborough School, told The Huffington Post that the panel was "really frightening and certainly eye-opening." Payne said she had always suspected that she was "two steps behind" her kids when it came to technology, but said she now had confirmation that it was true. Still, she added that she was "trying to engage" and wouldn't give up doing so.

Sandy Silas, who teaches human development across several schools in Los Angeles, likened the issue of Internet safety to sex education, which is part of her curriculum. Parents need to constantly "impart values, norms and information" to their kids, she said. "If parents give up, kids receive guidance from the media and their peers, which puts them in a dangerous position."