* Groups file complaints with FTC, allege COPPA violations
* Say "refer-a-friend" campaigns unfair, deceptive
* Call on FTC to investigate and stop such viral marketing
By Jasmin Melvin
WASHINGTON, Aug 22 Consumer advocates accused
companies including McDonald's Corp and Viacom Inc's
Nickelodeon of unlawfully using children to market
their websites through campaigns that encourage sharing video,
games and other content.
The Center for Digital Democracy and 16 other groups asked
the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate, accusing the
companies of violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection
Act (COPPA) by asking children to divulge personal information
and the information of friends without parental consent.
Angela Campbell, a Georgetown law professor and legal
counsel for the Center for Digital Democracy, said the FTC
should stop such "commercial exploitation of children."
The FTC implemented the children's privacy law in 2000
through its Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule, which
gives parents a say over what information websites can collect
about children under age 13.
Lawmakers and privacy advocates have long argued that
companies are not doing enough to safeguard customers' privacy.
The advocacy groups filed five separate complaints with the
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.
"We take our compliance with children's privacy rules very
seriously, and the allegations made by these groups are
absolutely incorrect," Nickelodeon spokesman David Bittler said.
General Mills spokesman Tom Forsythe said the complaints
seem 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.
But the advocacy groups argue that the refer-a-friend
campaigns are unfair and deceptive to children who may not be
aware that they are generating advertising messages.
"The companies identified in these complaints are clearly
trying to circumvent privacy safeguards for children," said
American University communications professor Kathryn Montgomery.
"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," said Montgomery, one of the leaders of the campaign
to have COPPA enacted in 1998.
The FTC and White House unveiled earlier this year privacy
frameworks that would give all Internet users, not just those
under 13, greater control over how their personal data is
collected, shared and used by advertisers and tech companies.
Some lawmakers have also called COPPA woefully out of touch
with technology developments, leaving kids vulnerable.
Bipartisan legislation has been introduced to create a "Do Not
Track" system to protect kids, but it has been stalled in
The FTC earlier this month 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.
TAKING PROTECTIONS SERIOUSLY
The advocacy groups' complaints included the "star in a
music video" feature on the McDonald's site. A child is able to
upload their photo to create a video with their image on a
cartoon character, and is asked to share the video by providing
the names and email addresses of friends. Those friends then
receive an email asking them to check out the site and saying
they were "tagged for fun by a friend." All of this occurs
without having to get a parent involved.
"McDonald's makes every effort to be in compliance with all
government regulations," McDonald's USA spokeswoman Danya Proud
A Cartoon Network spokesman said they would review any
allegations closely, and stressed that the network takes
complying with COPPA very seriously. A Subway Restaurants
spokesperson said they also took online privacy seriously and
The advocacy groups also asked the FTC to update COPPA to
bar cookies from being placed on computers that visit children's
websites without parental consent, and to include photographs in
its definition of personal information. Both items have already
been proposed by the FTC.
The FTC said it has received the complaints and will be
reviewing them carefully.