Five major marketers charged with violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by a coalition of advocacy groups deny the allegations, saying they are unwarranted. The Federal Trade Commission, which implemented the law in 1998 -– it is intended to gives parents control over the information that websites can collect about children under age 13 -- says that it will carefully review the complaints filed by the Center for Digital Democracy and 16 other groups.
The five separate complaints filed against McDonald's HappyMeal.com, Viacom's Nick.com, Doctor's Associates’ SubwayKids.com, Turner Broadcasting System's CartoonNetwork.com and General Mills’ ReesesPuffs.com and TrixWorld.com target “unfair and deceptive marketing practices that use refer-a-friend campaigns to induce children to engage in viral marketing.”
Specifically, “the groups contend that the marketers are encouraging kids to play games related to the brands and engage in activities that prompt kids to provide friends' email addresses,” explains Ad Age’s Maureen Morrison. ]
Tell-a-friend campaigns are common practice at sites targeting older consumers but are "inherently unfair and deceptive when aimed at children, who often aren't aware that they are being asked to generate advertising messages," the coalition charges.
"The companies identified in these complaints are clearly trying to circumvent privacy safeguards for children," American University communications professor Kathryn Montgomery tells Reuters’ Jasmin Melvin. "They are 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."
Several of the marketers indicated that they were blindsided by the complaint. All of them said, in effect, that they take online privacy seriously. "Subway Restaurants takes online privacy seriously and is COPPA and CARU compliant," a Subway spokesperson told Ad Age. "McDonald's makes every effort to be in compliance with all government regulations," McDonald's USA spokeswoman Danya Proud told Reuters. The Los Angeles Times’Jim Puzzanghera writes that Turner Broadcasting “said it would review the allegations” and General Mills said it was “‘compliant’ with federal law.” And Cartoon Network said in a statement that it would review the allegations carefully.
General Mills spokesman Tom Forsythe tells Reuters’ Melvin that the complaint seems to have mischaracterized their practices. "COPPA permits 'send to a friend' emails, provided the sending friend's email address or full name is never collected and the recipient's email address is deleted following the sending of the message," he said.
Wired’s David Kravets pokes around at some of the offending sites and finds a “DJ Tool” at General Mill’s reesespuffs.com site. “Kids can share the site with a friend, asking for both their e-mail address and name, as well as their friend’s e-mail and name, he writes, pointing out that both it and McDonald’s HappyMeal.com, which encourages kids to make a music video and email it to friends, alert kids that “this is advertising.”
“In their letter to the FTC, the advocacy groups said HappyMeal.com stores the photos children upload to the site for various activities "in unprotected, publicly accessible directories," Puzzanghera reports. “The site tells children the photo is stored for two weeks and then deleted, but a photo uploaded Aug. 2 was still stored on the site as of Monday,” the groups said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), co-chair of the bipartisan House committee on privacy and co-sponsor of the Do Not Track Kids Act update to the law, says, “Children and teens are especially vulnerable to targeted advertising due to their use of social media tools, making it all the more important to update COPPA for the 21st century.” He says his bill will “add new privacy protections to ensure that children’s personal information isn’t collected or used without express parental permission and corporations do not target advertising at children,” the Washington Post’s Hayley Tsukayama reports.
The groups filing the complaint collectively refer to themselves in a cover letter to the FTC as “Children’s Privacy Advocates.” In addition to the lead agency, the Center for Digital Democracy, they are: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Berkeley Media Studies Group, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Center for Media Justice, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Children Now, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, ChangeLab Solutions, Global Action Project, Media Literacy Project, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Public Citizen, Public Health Advocacy Institute, and Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale .
The letter also states that “refer-a-friend marketing is widely used on child-directed websites,” citing a 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation study by Notre Dame marketing professor Elizabeth S. Moore, “It’s Child’s Play: Advergaming and the Online Marketing of Food to Children,” that found that 64% of the websites it reviewed enabled children to send e-greetings or other branded emails to their friends.”
Say what you will about the complaint, you can’t say that they’re picking on the little guys.