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Advocacy Groups Target Cartoon, Nick Web Sites in FTC Complaints - Broadcasting & Cable

Advocacy Groups Target Cartoon, Nick Web Sites in FTC Complaints

Say e-mail sharing violates COPPA; companies indicate they take compliance with online protections seriously
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A coalition of child advocacy groups is asking
the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Cartoon Network (Turner) and
Nickelodeon (Viacom) Web sites, among others, for what they say are unfair and
deceptive acts in violation of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act
(COPPA).

Cartoon
and Nick were keeping their powder dry until the complaints were officially
lodged Wednesday, but a Nickelodeon source told B&C/Multi that its site did not violate COPPA.

In
addition to pushing the FTC to better enforce current law, the groups are
urging it to wrap up its proposals to update the COPPA rules.

According
to copies of the complaints to be filed Wednesday, the groups, which include
Center For Digital Democracy, Consumer Federation of America, and Children Now,
argue that the sites' use of "refer-a-friend" viral marketing techniques runs
afoul of those protections, and want the FTC to clarify that placing tracking
cookies and soliciting e-mail addresses requires notice and parental approval.

In
their complaint against Nick.com, the groups argue that online games that ask
for e-mail addresses to share the game with friends are collecting personal
info without the requisite notice that the e-mails being collected will be used
for marketing messages. They also claim the game's send-to-a-friend form makes
no mention of parents, which they call a clear violation of COPPA requirements
that Web operators make "all reasonable efforts" to give parents
notice of information collection or sharing.

"Children's
Privacy Advocates respectfully request that the FTC take prompt against
Nickelodeon for its collection of personal information from children in
violation of COPPA," they say. "By failing to comply with its
obligation to provide notice of its privacy practices and obtain verifiable
consent from parents before collecting personal information from children,
Nickelodeon endangers children's privacy, exposes children to intrusive
marketing behind parents' backs, and violates the FTC's regulations."

The
complaint against CartoonNetwork.com is similar. The groups argue that the site
"collects personal information from children without giving clear and
understandable notice to parents and without even attempting to obtain
verifiable parental consent." Again the target is online games that ask
the user to share them with a friend through an online form that solicits the
friend's e-mail address.

While
COPPA has an exemption from the consent requirement for one-time contact with a
child "for the sole purpose of responding directly...to a specific
request" from the child, they say that applies to information on that
child, not personal information from a second child--the friend whose e-mail
has been supplied so they can share the game. "When Cartoon Network
collects the email address of a child's friend for the purpose of sending
marketing messages to that friend, the child's friend has not requested that
Cartoon Network send her anything. Thus, Cartoon Network's collection of email
addresses is not exempt," they say.

The
goal of the complaints is partly to light fire under the FTC. Jeff Chester,
executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, suggests the FTC has
been too slow to make changes to COPPA to keep up with sophisticated online
marketing techniques. "They have been slow to update their rules," he
says. "How could companies like Time Warner and Viacom possibly think that
giving them the e-mail addresses of their friends is permissible either in
terms of privacy or marketing practices?"

"Cartoon
Network takes its compliance with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act
(COPPA) very seriously. We will review any allegations closely," the
company said in a statement, adding that it had no further comment having not
seen the complaints.

Nickelodeon
declined comment, but according to a company source familiar with Nick's online
practices who asked to speak on background, said that Nick.com does not store
or record the e-mail addresses from those friends, and that, under COPPA, no
parental notification is needed when only a name and e-mail address are being
requested.

Also
targeted in the complaint were sites run by Subway, General Mills, and
McDonalds that also employ the share-with-friends functionality.

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