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PHAI joins the Center for Digital Democracy and others in complaint to FTC over children’s websites’ “Tell-A-Friend” tactics

August 22nd, 2012

Today the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston has joined a coalition of children’s, health, privacy and consumer advocacy organizations in a complaint to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission against several children’s websites for violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The offending children’s websites use a “Tell-A-Friend” feature to induce children to provide e-mail addresses of their peers.  The websites involved include McDonald’s HappyMeal.com, General Mills’ ReesesPuffs.com and TrixWorld.com, Doctor’s Associates’ SubwayKids.com, Viacom’s Nick.com, and Turner Broadcasting’s CartoonNetwork.com.

The Tell-A-Friend tactic uses a game or other child-targeted activity as a way to engage children in an immersive  marketing experience and then directs users to share the activity with friends by entering multiple e-mail addresses.  Those children will receive an e-mail that may or may not appear to be from their friend urging them to go to a child-targeted marketing website. This viral marketing tactic creates and reinforces brand awareness providing value to the advertiser.  All of this occurs without prompts for any parental consent and, in McDonald’s case, may involve distributing a photograph of the child taken by webcam to recipients of the e-mail message.

Mark Gottlieb, Executive Director of PHAI, noted that, “COPPA was enacted by Congress to protect children under 13 from divulging any personal information to commercial interests on the Internet without the consent of a parent. By inducing young kids to provide the e-mail addresses of their peers, the companies involved here are certainly violating the spirit of COPPA and, it would appear, the letter of the law as well through these “Tell-A-Friend” practices.  This is something that state attorneys general could also investigate under their consumer protection authority because these tactics are unfair and deceptive.”

In addition to the Center for Digital Democracy which has published the complaints on its website, PHAI was joined by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Berkeley Media Studies Group, Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood, Center for Media Justice, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Children Now, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, ChangeLab Solutions, Global Action Project, Media Literacy Project, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Public Citizen, and the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University.

One Response to “PHAI joins the Center for Digital Democracy and others in complaint to FTC over children’s websites’ “Tell-A-Friend” tactics”

  1. Congratulations and good luck. It is SO important to take this on – as evidenced by the impressive roster of complainants.


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