In a rare loss, the Harlem Globetrotters agreed, at the direction of the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU), that their age-screening practices for the company's website would be compliant with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Boy's Life magazine directed readers to the website to find a show in a "city near you" and for more information regarding the purchase of specially priced tickets for Boy Scouts. CARU visited the website and observed that visitors to the site could sign up for an e-newsletter by providing personal information (first and last name, ZIP code, and e-mail address). Beneath the newsletter sign-up, the website featured a check box that stated, "You are 13 or older."

CARU was concerned that the website did not properly age-screen before requesting that users provide personally identifiable information.

CARU found the site was directed to children, noting that the Globetrotters offer family-friendly entertainment. In addition, the site had features "expressly aimed at children," with a section titled "Kids Games Here!" and images on the home page of a Harlem Globetrotter showing a young girl how to spin a basketball and a 9-year-old winner of a contest for tickets. CARU also acknowledged that since children were not the primary audience for the site, the Globetrotters were permitted to age-screen to establish whether users were under the age of 13. If so, COPPA requires parental consent prior to the collection of personal information for the e-newsletter.

However, CARU found that the existing age-screening mechanism (the checkbox) was inadequate. The Guidelines for Online Privacy Protection state that "Operators should ask screening questions in a neutral manner so as to discourage inaccurate answers from children trying to avoid parental permission requirements," and that such mechanisms "should be used in conjunction with technology, e.g., a session cookie, to help prevent underage children from going back and changing their age to circumvent age-screening."

"CARU does not consider asking a visitor to confirm that he or she is over the age of 13 to be neutral," the decision noted. The self-regulatory body recommended that the Globetrotters "modify the site's age-screening mechanism to one that is neutral to discourage inaccurate answers from children trying to avoid parental permission and notice requirements."

To read CARU's press release about the decision, click here.

Why it matters: In the advertiser's statement, the Globetrotters stated that it was "unaware" that its website was not in accord, but promised to work with CARU to achieve compliance with the group's Guidelines and the requirements of COPPA. The decision provides an important reminder to website operators that if they collect e-mail addresses along with other personally identifiable information and their sites are even partially directed to children, they must use an effective, neutral age screen.