by J.D. Heyes
August 28, 2012
Some 20 children's advocacy, public
interest and health groups have jointly filed a complaint with the
Federal Trade Commission charging that some online marketing by
McDonald's and four other popular companies targeting children
violates a federal statute that protects their privacy.
The law is known as the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act
(COPPA), The New York Times reported, and it requires operators of
websites to obtain verifiable consent from a child's parents before
collecting their personal information if they are under the age of
However, in complaints to the FTC, the 20-member coalition said six
popular websites that target kids have violated the law,
"by encouraging children who play
brand-related games or engage in other activities to provide
friends' email addresses - without seeking prior parental
consent," the paper said.
One of the companies, however, countered
accusations by the coalition were a mis-characterization of its
practices, noting that the law permits exceptions for one-time use
of a friend's email address. It wasn't clear by press time if the
companies had yet received the complaint.
Getting information about social networking sites for adults to
email marketing messages to their friends is commonplace in the
industry; it's a practice called "refer a friend" or "tell a
Now, though, an increasing number of kid's sites are using the
strategy by inviting children to make customized videos, for
instance, which promote key products, and then sending them to their
Network, General Mills accused as well
Sites included in the complaint are,
Viacom-owned Nickelodeon site
ReesesPuffs.com, owned by cereal
giant General Mills
SubwayKids.com, another General
Mills-owned site called TrixWorld.com
CartoonNetwork.com, owned by
"It really shows that companies are
doing an end run around a law put in place to protect children's
privacy," Laura Moy, a lawyer for the Center for Digital
Democracy, a nonprofit group in Washington leading complaints,
told the Times.
"Under the law, they can't just collect e-mail addresses from
kids and send them marketing material directly. So they are
embedding messages saying, 'Play this game and share it with
your friends,' in order to target the friends," she added.
Additional members of the coalition
the Consumer Federation of
the Rudd Center for Food Policy
and Obesity at Yale University
the American Academy of Child
and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Public Citizen
Separate reports said the coalition
filed five separate complaints and was led by the Center for Digital
'we're taking it seriously'
"It is very troubling that major
companies as McDonald's, General Mills and Nickelodeon are
collecting email addresses from children so they can send
unsolicited marketing messages to their friends," said Angela
Campbell, the co-director of the Institute for Public
Representation at Georgetown Law School, who serves as legal
counsel to CDD and the other groups submitting the complaints.
"These 'tell-a-friend' practices
violate the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act because
they are done without adequate notice to parents and without
parental consent. The FTC should act promptly to stop this
commercial exploitation of children."
In their letter to the FTC, the
coalition asked the agency to look into additional marketing
practices they said are also unfair or otherwise deceptive,
including sites that use computer code to track the online
activities of children or sites that ask them to upload their
"This is the kind of thing you see
from con artists, not the Fortune 500 elite," said Jeff Chester,
the CDD's executive director, according to AdWeek.
Tom Forsythe, a spokesman for
General Mills, told the Times in an email that his company was
following approved practices, and that GM does not collect the
original child's email address, adding the company only sends a
single email to that child's friend.
James Anderson, a Turner spokesman, also responded to the
Times via email, saying the Cartoon Network took compliance with
COPPA seriously and would closely review any accusations. A Subway
spokesman said essentially the same thing, the paper reported.
The FTC is currently working to update children's privacy rules to
make sure they keep up with evolving technology.