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Pitch to the kids, but deal with adults

Congress and federal regulators should be applauded for finally taking notice of the abuses that some 900-number phone services have been perpetrating on the public for years _ provided it all leads to some effective reform, that is. Several measures aimed at tightening regulation of the industry are currently working their way through congressional committees and seem to have enough support to make the phone solicitation industry's formidable lobby take notice. The Federal Communications Commission is also weighing new restrictions, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently clamped down on 900 services that shamelessly entice children to run up phone bills for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

The proposed reforms currently pending before the House Energy and Commerce Committee _ included in the Audiotext Industry Obligations and Consumer Rights Act _ would go a long way in protecting adults who use the growing variety of phone-in information and conversation services, through such provisions as separate billing for 900 phone service, ample warnings about costs and opportunities to hang up after finding out.

But the proposed reforms don't go far enough in reducing the 900 services' ability to exploit children. They ought to make it flatly illegal for the services to make actual phone transactions with children.

It's a step Congress is reluctant to take, because it falls into the murky constitutional area between the federal government's authority to regulate interstate commerce and the states' traditional province of regulating contract law. The choice is seen as one of implementing meaningful reform or going too far and becoming bogged down in a protracted court challenge.

But the practices involved are so egregious that Congress should leave no doubt that they are morally unacceptable. The legal tradition of guarding against commercial exploitation of children _ such as child labor or child pornography laws _ is strong enough to sustain any constitutional challenge to such a reasonable restriction.

The proposed requirement to give parents the option to block 900 calls carries the drawback that they would also lose access to useful 900 services. Children's advocates believe a deal struck last month between the 900 children's industry and the Federal Trade Commission would effectively end the abuses, especially through a requirement that the companies give parents credit for up to one month's worth of unauthorized calls _ except that compliance is still voluntary and after-the-fact. At the very least, Congress should seriously consider writing that arrangement into law.

Placing too many restrictions on how the services pitch to children would also raise delicate issues of free speech for the owners, said U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, whose subcommittee drafted the reforms before the Energy and Commerce Committee.

". . . My telecommunications subcommittee is endeavoring to walk a fine ine," Bilirakis wrote in a response to an earlier Times editorial. "No one wants 900-number abuse to continue, and we are endeavoring to end it. We just don't want to throw out the Constitution with the deceptive, fraudulent and abusive chatter."

Fine. Let the 900 companies pitch to kids the same as toy companies and cereal makers do _ that's free speech. But make them talk money with parents, who can then choose to put the kids on or hang up. The loophole that allows companies a blank check to sell to children has nothing to do with free speech.