San Francisco — McDonald's, General Mills, Subway, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network could all be violating online privacy rules designed to protect children.
On Wednesday, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other consumer, privacy and children's advocacy groups plan to file five separate complaints against the companies with the Federal Trade Commission.
The organizations allege that the businesses are engaging in marketing practices clearly at odds with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. The rules limit the personal information that online advertisers can knowingly collect about children under 13, generally by requiring parental consent before doing so.
"These companies are trying to make an end run around Coppa," said Laura Moy, an attorney at the Georgetown University Law Center representing the Center for Digital Democracy. "They're getting kids to facilitate viral marketing campaigns."
The organizations are calling on the FTC to investigate and take action against the companies. The groups specifically allege that children-targeted websites operated by the companies are violating federal regulations by engaging in a form of viral marketing known as "refer-a-friend" campaigns. Children participating in online games or activities are asked to provide e-mail addresses of friends, who then receive notes encouraging them to try it out too.
With few exceptions – and none that apply in these cases – whenever sites knowingly collect e-mail addresses of children under 13 without the consent of their parents, they're running afoul of the FTC rules, Moy said.
General Mills disputed that characterization.
"Coppa 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," Tom Forsythe, a spokesman said in an e-mail, stressing that General Mills follows those guidelines. "If they are saying General Mills is not following the Coppa-approved procedure, they are simply wrong."
Subway insisted it's in compliance too. Cartoon Network-owner Turner Broadcasting said it takes Coppa compliance seriously and will review the allegations closely. The other companies didn't immediately respond to Chronicle inquiries.
The websites cited by the organizations for engaging in refer-a-friend campaigns include HappyMeal.com, ReesesPuffs.com, TrixWorld.com, SubwayKids.com, Nick.com and CartoonNetwork.com.
In the case of McDonald's, children visiting HappyMeal.com are asked to make a music video by snapping or uploading a picture, which is then placed on a cartoon character's body that dances along to a song. In several cases, the websites in question are also installing tracking cookies, which monitor online behavior for the purpose of delivering targeted ads.
Gathering photos of children and information about them through cookies without parental permission is allowed under the 14-year-old Coppa rules. But those practices would be barred under updates proposed by the FTC and strongly supported by the groups bringing the complaints.
Those amendments would also clarify that the rules apply to mobile devices, cover location information collected through devices like smartphones, require clearer notifications to parents and allow for new means of providing consent. A second public comment period on those proposals ends early next month.
Other organizations that joined in filing the complaints include: the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University and Berkeley Media Studies Group.
"Most of these multinational companies are selling sugar, basically, and they're marketing directly to kids," said Lori Dorfman, director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group. "The FTC needs to, one, understand the seriousness of this, and two, call these companies to account."
James Temple is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @jtemple