(NaturalNews) Some 20 children's advocacy, public interest and health groups have jointly filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission charging that some online marketing by McDonald's and four other popular companies targeting children violates a federal statute that protects their privacy.
The law is known as the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), The New York Times reported, and it requires operators of websites to obtain verifiable consent from a child's parents before collecting their personal information if they are under the age of 13.
However, in complaints to the FTC, the 20-member coalition said six popular websites that target kids have violated the law "by encouraging children who play brand-related games or engage in other activities to provide friends' email addresses - without seeking prior parental consent," the paper said.
One of the companies; however, countered accusations by the coalition were a mis-characterization of its practices, noting that the law permits exceptions for one-time use of a friend's email address. It wasn't clear by press time if the companies had yet received the complaint.
Getting information about social networking sites for adults to email marketing messages to their friends is commonplace in the industry; it's a practice called "refer a friend" or "tell a friend."
Now, though, an increasing number of kid's sites are using the strategy by inviting children to make customized videos, for instance, which promote key products, and then sending them to their friends.
Cartoon Network, General Mills accused as well
Sites included in the complaint are McDonald's Happymeal.com; Viacom-owned Nickelodeon site Nick.com; ReesesPuffs.com, owned by cereal giant General Mills; SubwayKids.com, another General Mills-owned site called TrixWorld.com, and CartoonNetwork.com, owned by Turner.
"It really shows that companies are doing an end run around a law put in place to protect children's privacy," Laura Moy, a lawyer for the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit group in Washington leading complaints, told the Times.
"Under the law, they can't just collect e-mail 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," she added.
Additional members of the coalition include the Consumer Federation of America, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Public Citizen.
Separate reports said the coalition filed five separate complaints and was led by the Center for Digital Democracy.
Companies say 'we're taking it seriously'
"It is very troubling that major companies as McDonald's, General Mills and Nickelodeon are collecting email addresses from children so they can send unsolicited marketing messages to their friends," said Angela Campbell, the co-director of the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown Law School, who serves as legal counsel to CDD and the other groups submitting the complaints. "These 'tell-a-friend' practices violate the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act because they are done without adequate notice to parents and without parental consent. The FTC should act promptly to stop this commercial exploitation of children."
In their letter to the FTC, the coalition asked the agency to look into additional marketing practices they said are also unfair or otherwise deceptive, including sites that use computer code to track the online activities of children or sites that ask them to upload their photos.
"This is the kind of thing you see from con artists, not the Fortune 500 elite," said Jeff Chester, the CDD's executive director, according to AdWeek.
Tom Forsythe, a spokesman for General Mills, told the Times in an email that his company was following approved practices, and that GM does not collect the original child's email address, adding the company only sends a single email to that child's friend.
James Anderson, a Turner spokesman, also responded to the Times via email, saying the Cartoon Network took compliance with COPPA seriously and would closely review any accusations. A Subway spokesman said essentially the same thing, the paper reported.
The FTC is currently working to update children's privacy rules to make sure they keep up with evolving technology.