Websites marketed to children accused of privacy violation

A coalition of privacy and consumer advocacy groups accused six popular children's websites on Wednesday of engaging in illegal data collection.

The groups claimed that McDonald’s HappyMeal.com, General Mills’s ReesesPuffs.com and TrixWorld.com, SubwayKids.com, Viacom’s Nick.com and Turner Broadcasting’s CartoonNetwork.com use marketing tactics that run afoul of a federal privacy law.

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The sites all use a marketing tactic called "tell a friend," in which children play a product-related online game and are then encouraged to share that game with a friend by submitting the friend's email address.

The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) restricts the ability of websites to collect information from children younger than 13 without their parent's consent.

The consumer groups, led by the Center for Digital Democracy, urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the companies.

“These are particularly insidious practices,” said Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of communication at American University, in a statement provided by the consumer groups. “The companies identified in these complaints are clearly trying to circumvent privacy safeguards for children. 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.”   

But Tom Forsythe, a spokesman for General Mills, said the consumer groups misunderstand the requirements of COPPA.

"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 purged immediately following the sending of the message," he said, pointing to an explanation on the FTC's website.

He said General Mills immediately deletes the email addresses and never collects any other information.

"If they are saying General Mills is not following the COPPA-approved procedure, they are simply wrong," he said.

Other groups joining in the complaint are the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Berkeley Media Studies Group, the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood, the Center for Media Justice, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Children Now, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, ChangeLab Solutions, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Public Citizen, the Public Health Advocacy Institute and the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale.