Texas Accuses Web Marketers Of Targeting Children Unlawfully

As legislators and regulators take a closer look at online advertising, Texas this week became the first state to charge Web companies with violating a 1998 federal law that restricts marketing to children under the age of 13.

In the cases, Texas attorney general Greg Abbott accuses two Web companies--gaming fan site GamesRadar.com and cartoon doll site TheDollPalace.com--of violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act by collecting personal information from children under 13 without their parents' consent.

Some advocates view the lawsuits--filed four weeks after the FTC held meetings about privacy and online advertising--as signaling a new wave of scrutiny for marketing practices. "The online privacy issue is resurfacing and heating up as a public debate--which it was very much in the 1990s, when we got COPPA passed," said Kathryn Montgomery, an American University communications professor and also an architect of COPPA.

The complaints in both cases contain sweeping statements about the importance of protecting privacy on the Web. "Because of technological advancements that allow Web site operators and others to secretly collect almost unlimited information about visitors, online privacy protections are particularly important," the lawsuits state.

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According to the lawsuits, The Doll Palace, which launched in 2000 and lets users interact with cartoon dolls online, also allegedly requires users to give personal information including their names, e-mail addresses, postal addresses, birthdates and gender to access certain features on the site.

While the company tells users under 13 that they need their parents' permission to disclose personal information, the lawsuit charges that The Doll Palace relies on users' representations and does not verify either the age of users or whether their parents have consented. "The ease in which a child can circumvent the 'parental' consent requirements is clear," the complaint charges.

But company owner Alex Syrov said he doesn't know what additional steps would have satisfied the Texas authorities. "We are working with them to figure out what else could be done," he said.

The Texas attorney general alleges that GamesRadar.com, owned by Future US, "encourages children under 13 to lie about their age" during the registration process. When users are asked for their date of birth, they must choose the year from a drop-down menu--but the most recent year on the menu is 1994, so children under 13 have no way of submitting their true age, according to the lawsuit.

A Future US spokesperson said Thursday that the company was reviewing the lawsuit and had no comment.

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