FTC Cracks Down on Collecting Kids’ Data29 Aug, 2012 By: Doug McPherson
WASHINGTON – Some big-name companies are in hot water, accused of unlawfully using children to market their websites through refer-a-friend campaigns that encourage sharing video, games and other content.
Advocacy groups have filed five separate complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against McDonald’s HappyMeal.com, Viacom’s Nick.com, Doctor’s Associates Inc.’s SubwayKids.com, Turner Broadcasting System’s CartoonNetwork.com and General Mills Inc.’s ReesesPuffs.com and TrixWorld.com. Turner Broadcasting is a unit of Time Warner.
The Center for Digital Democracy and 16 other groups asked the FTC to investigate possible violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that stem from these marketers allegedly asking children to divulge personal information and the information of friends without parental consent.
The FTC implemented COPPA in 2000 to give parents a say over what information websites can collect about children under age 13.
The advocacy groups’ complaints included the “star in a music video” feature on the McDonald’s site. Children can upload their photos to create videos with their images on cartoon characters. They’re also asked to share the video by providing the names and E-mail addresses of friends. Those friends are then E-mailed, asking them to visit their friend’s site and saying they were “tagged for fun by a friend.” All of this occurs without parental involvement.
Angela Campbell, legal counsel for the Center for Digital Democracy, calls the companies’ actions “commercial exploitation of children.”
Reuters reports that Nickelodeon spokesman David Bittler says his company takes compliance with children’s privacy rules “very seriously” and that the allegations “are absolutely incorrect.”
General Mills spokesman Tom Forsythe says the complaints seem to have mischaracterized their practices. “COPPA permits ‘send to a friend’ E-mails, provided the sending friend’s E-mail address or full name is never collected and the recipient’s E-mail address is deleted following the sending of the message,” he adds.
But the advocacy groups argue refer-a-friend campaigns are unfair and deceptive to children who may not realize they’re generating advertising messages.
“The companies … are clearly trying to circumvent privacy safeguards for children,” says American University communications professor Kathryn Montgomery. “They’re also enlisting kids and their friends in deceptive marketing schemes disguised as play – in some cases for junk foods and other unhealthy products – completely under the radar of parents.”
And earlier this month, the FTC proposed further changes to its planned update of COPPA regulations that would ensure that websites and third-party data brokers get parental permission before they collect children’s data.