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'Safe' websites snooping on kids

Several consumer advocate groups allege some popular sites that market to children are violating federal privacy laws.

If your child uses a computer, do you know what they are doing online?

It's a question Law Professor James Gibson, with the University of Richmond, says you should know the answer to. He says a recent complaint to the Federal Trade Commission could have parents doing a little snooping.

"There have been a number of websites in the past who have been found guilty of violation or at least have settled complaints that they have been collecting information on kids 12 years old and younger," Gibson says.

He says it's not clear what the information would be used for, but the complaint filed with the FTC claims several popular sites used by kids violate the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. It's meant to prevent websites from collecting personal information from those under 13 without their parents' permission.

"What these websites are accused of doing is essentially doing an end-run around the act by getting the kids to submit their friends' email addresses, sort of tell-a-friend feature," Gibson explains.

The complaint says asking for this information is deceptive marketing and an invasion of privacy.

Gibson stresses that these are only allegations and the FTC has not made a ruling. He says more importantly, this a reminder for parents to monitor what their kids are doing online.

"The best answer is always self-help. Keep an eye on what your kids are doing and talk with your kids about giving information to websites that might identify them or get their data into some internet directory where it really shouldn't be," Gibson says.

The companies named in the complaint include General Mills, which operates Reesepuff.com and Trixworld.com; McDonald's, which operates Happymeal.com and Turner Broadcasting, which operates Cartoon Network.

We reached out to those companies.

General Mills says it follows the guidelines of the privacy act and says, "We believe these organizations may not have understood our practice in this area. COPPA permits 'send to a friend' emails, provided the sending friend's email address or full name is never collected and the recipient's email address is deleted following the sending of the message. The FTC has published a specific FAQ on this point (see FAQ 44) General Mills follows that COPPA-approved procedure."

Turner Broadcasting says, "We have no further comment than what we said when this was brought to our attention and that was, 'We take our compliance with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act very seriously and follow all guidelines.'"

A spokesperson from McDonald's says, "McDonald's places high importance upon the protection of privacy, including children's online privacy. We continuously review and enhance our sites as appropriate. As always, we welcome the opportunity and remain focused on ways to further enhance our web sites."

Gibson says it may be a struggle to prove the sites are violating the privacy act.

"It is not entirely clear that when you give up a friend's email, that it is sharing personal information in the way that the act prohibits, so it might be that by the stark letter of the law, there is an argument that this is not a violation," Gibson says.

As this case continues to play out, Gibson says make sure to visit the sites your kids visit. Read privacy information and know what they're clicking. If found in violation, companies could be fined or ordered to stop collecting information.

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