A coalition of children's advocacy organizations, led by the Center for Digital Democracy, have charged five brands--McDonald's, General Mills, Subway, Nick.com, and Cartoon Network--with illegally marketing services toward, and collecting information from, kids younger than 13.

In an open letter to the Federal Trade Commission, the groups call on these five companies to "better protect youth from others forms of data collection, including the use of photos and 'cookies.'"

Any company or website that markets its services or products towards children is no doubt familiar with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, better known as COPPA, the federal law that regulates how marketers collect information from consumers younger than 13.

The gripe, according to the consumer groups, is that the sites named in the complaint have engaged in some form of peer marketing that targets young children, and invites them to share personal information or creative content with other users. One campaign, for example, by the McDonald's HappyMeal.com site, encourages kids to use a personal webcam to upload a picture of themselves, which is then placed onto the body of a cartoon character and shared with friends over e-mail.

Alhough campaigns like these may seem harmless, the groups contend that privacy restrictions outlined in COPPA make them unlawful.

"Such tell-a-friend campaigns, a powerful form of word-of-mouth marketing traditionally directed at teens and adults, are inherently unfair and deceptive when aimed at children, who often aren't even aware that they are being asked to generate advertising messages," the complaint reads. "The practices also violate existing privacy laws for children."

Adhering to COPPA is a notoriously treacherous landscape for both large and small companies alike. Recently, several game sites targeted toward children were forced to shut down or pay fees because of COPPA violations. 

"There's a code of best practices that deal with privacy, cyber crime, security, and safety," says Parry Aftab, a child safety advocate and the managing director of Wired Trust, a COPPA compliance firm. "You have cyber bullying, you have trolls and trolling, you have sexual predators. There are a million things that can go wrong."

Published on: Aug 22, 2012