If my teenage son Charlie (he’s autistic with many cognitive challenges) could read, I would be that nosey mom constantly checking on what he was up to online and all the more so after learning that McDonald’s, General Mills and other companies are being accused of collecting data about children through their websites.
On Wednesday, a coalition of nearly 20 children’s advocacy, health and public interest groups reportedly filed at least five separate complaints with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that McDonald’s, General Mills, the Cartoon Network, Subway and Nickolodeon are in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Under this law, website operators must obtain “verifiable consent” from parents before being able to collect personal information about children under age 13.
The websites noted in the complaints are HappyMeal.com, Nick.com, ReesesPuffs.com, SubwayKids.com, TrixWorld.com, and CartoonNetwork.com.
According to the complaints, these child-targeted websites violate COPPA though “refer-a-friend” campaigns in which children, after playing a brand-related online game or other activity, are asked to provide the email addresses of friends, who then receive emails encouraging them to try the same activity. That is, the children playing the brand-related activities are — it sounds rather insidious, it is insidious — being made unwitting parties in providing the companies with personal data of other children, without the parental consent of those children.
In SFGate, General Mills spokesman Tony Forsythe says oh no, they’re not violating any federal laws. COPPA, he says, “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 purged immediately following the sending of the message.” Subway also claims to be in compliance and Turner Broadcasting, a co-owner of the Cartoon Network, tell SFGate that it is reviewing the allegations. The other companies did not respond to SFGate‘s inquiries.
The Center for Digital Democracy led in filing the complaints; other members of the coalition are Public Citizen, the Consumer Federation of America, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale.
As Laura Moy, a Center for Digital Democracy lawyer, says in the New York Times, “It really shows that companies are doing an end run around a law put in place to protect children’s privacy.”
Indeed they are. SFGate calls “refer-a-friend” campaigns a “form of viral marketing.” Maybe the companies really do “purge” the email addresses of recipients. But in the meantime, that email has been sent to another child, who is asked not only to play some brand-related game but also to refer another friend who then gets an email “inviting” them to play said game and refer another friend and so on.
As Lori Dorfman, director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, says, “Most of these multinational companies are selling sugar, basically, and they’re marketing directly to kids.” Moreover, they’re getting kids to help them market their name-brand sugar to other kids.
The FTC is seeking to update children’s privacy laws to keep up with the latest developments in technology. The five complaints filed should be a wake-up call for the FTC to take action, and soon, to protect our children’s privacy.
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Photo by Karl Palutke