Groups lodge FTC complaints over children's online privacy

'Refer-a-friend' viral marketing practices by McDonald's and others cross the legal line, according to the complaints

A coalition of 17 advocacy groups filed complaints on Wednesday with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission against five prominent companies, including McDonald's, claiming that certain of their online marketing practices violate child privacy laws.

Viacom, Doctor's Associates, Turner Broadcasting System and General Mills were also named in the complaints, the filing of which was led by the Center for Digital Democracy. Other groups in the coalition include the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Center for Media Justice, Children Now and the Consumer Federation of America.

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The coalition's complaints ask FTC officials to investigate the companies concerning "viral marketing" activities that allegedly violate the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

Websites aimed at kids, such as the McDonald's site and Doctor's Associates', are violating an aspect of the law that generally makes it illegal for a site to obtain personal data from children without giving proper notice that it is doing so, as well as getting "verifiable parental consent for the collection, use or disclosure of personal information from children," according to a statement from the group.

The companies named in the complaint don't "make any effort" to get parental consent, according to the coalition.

Broadly, the complaints center on "refer-a-friend" marketing practices by companies. "These companies encourage children who are playing games or engaging in other activities on their websites to provide the email addresses of their friends, then use those email addresses to send unsolicited marketing messages to the children's friends," lawyers for the coalition said in a letter to FTC Secretary Donald Clark.

The coalition cited a feature that allows children to make "music videos" that incorporate their photo into the body of a dancing cartoon character.

"The site then encourages the child to "share" the video with up to five of her friends by entering in their names and email addresses," the group added. "Each friend receives an email with the subject line, "You've been tagged for fun by a friend! Check it out! ... In this way, McDonald's gets an ever-increasing number of children to visit the branded Happy Meal website."

The complaint lodged against Doctor's Associates points to the "Pants Dance" game on, wherein a player "controls animated pants and wins points for catching falling items--including Subway sandwiches--in the pants" while "whimsical music plays in the background."

This game also asks for a child's email address and those of his or her friends, and like, fails to meet the COPPA law's standard for parental notification, according to the coalition.

Companies named in the complaints had mixed initial responses.

"This alleged complaint(s) was shared with members of the media under embargo," a McDonald's spokeswoman said in an emailed statement Wednesday. "McDonald's was not provided the opportunity to review in advance. As such, it would be inappropriate to comment or speculate."

In an emailed statement, a Viacom spokesman declined comment, saying the company hasn't fully reviewed the complaint. But, a site owned by Viacom that was cited by the coalition, "does not store or record the email addresses children provide to share things from the site with friends," the statement added.

Turner Broadcasting "takes its compliance with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) very seriously," a spokesman said via email. "We will review any allegations closely."

Doctor's Associates and General Mills didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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