updated 12:30 am EDT, Thu August 23, 2012
Complaints also filed against General Mills, Subway, others
Seventeen child advocacy groups teamed up this week to file five separate Federal Trade Commission complaints against McDonalds, Subway, General Mills, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon for collecting children's email addresses without parental consent. Groups like the Center for Digital Democracy, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest claim that the companies are acting in violation of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
The advocate groups claim that the web sites run by the targeted companies are aimed at children with brand-related online games that ask for friends' email addresses without "verifiable parental consent." Laura Moy, attorney for the Center for Digital Democracy said that "Under the law, they can't just collect email 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."
The complaint calls on the FTC to further revise the COPPA legislation to "address troubling new marketing techniques engaged in by some of these websites, such as placing third-party cookies on children's computers to facilitate behavior targeting and collecting and storing children's photographs without parental notice and consent."
General Mills representative Tom Forsythe told the San Francisco Chronicle that the practice was legal as long as the full name and email address of the original referrer is never collected, and the recipient's email address is never retained following the sending of the email.
Enacted in 1998, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act prohibits the collection of minor's personal information (including email addresses) by any party, without parental notification. Other identifiers such as browser cookies, and geolocation information are banned from collection efforts as well. The text of the bill from 1998 doesn't specifically address General Mills' interpretation of the use of emails in this fashion.
On August 6 of this year, the FTC published details on proposed revisions to COPPA after a nearly year-long public comment process. The revised rules still don't address the controversial interpretation, but do clarify some ill-defined or outdated terms as well as give examples of proper use of contact information. Referrals to other minors of a web-provided service is not included on the list.