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Viacom, Cartoon Network Web Sites Accused of Violating Child Privacy Act

23 Aug, 2012 By: Chris Tribbey

Viacom’s Nick.com, Turner Broadcasting’s CartoonNetwork.com and four other websites geared toward children are being accused of violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), according to complaints filed with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

The complaints, filed by the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) and 16 other groups, accuse the sites of engaging in improper viral marketing using the private information of minors.

McDonald’s HappyMeal.com, General Mills’ ReesesPuffs.com and TrixWorld.com, and Doctor’s Associates’ SubwayKids.com are also named in the complaint. The Center for Media Justice, Children Now, Consumer Action, Public Citizen and Public Health Advocacy Institute are among the other groups lodging the complaint.

“It is very troubling that major companies as McDonalds, General Mills and Nickelodeon are collecting email addresses from children so they can send unsolicited marketing messages to their friends,” said Angela Campbell, a law professor at Georgetown University and legal counsel to CDD. “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.”

The complaint points to a HappyMeal.com viral marketing campaign as an example. There, children can upload a picture and have it placed in a music video, which can then be sent to friends via email. The complaint argues that children shouldn’t be generating advertising messages, and that children’s privacy is violated by such tactics.

“These are particularly insidious practices,” said Dr. Kathryn C. Montgomery, a professor of communication at American University. “The companies identified in these complaints are clearly trying to circumvent privacy safeguards for children. They are also enlisting kids and their friends in deceptive marketing schemes disguised as play — in some cases for junk foods and other unhealthy products — completely under the radar of parents.”

The complaint also alleges some of the sites place tracking cookies on the computers used by children who visit the sites.

Neither Viacom nor Turner immediately responded to a request for comment, however a Cartoon Network spokesman told a Reuters reporter that the company would review the allegations.

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