A coalition of advocacy organizations has filed five complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against companies including McDonald’s Corp., General Mills, Inc. and Doctor’s Associates, Inc., calling for an investigation into Websites they purportedly use to promote food and TV programs to children. According to the coalition, the food-related Websites—HappyMeal.com, ReesesPuffs.com, TrixWorld.com, and SubwayKids.com—violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by encouraging children to provide their friends’ email addresses and create videos promoting branded products to send to their friends. According to the coalition, “tell-a-friend,” or “viral marketing,” is profitable given the effectiveness of word-of-mouth advertising and the opportunity to create “lifetime customers.”  

The coalition is also requesting that FTC update existing COPPA regulations “to include data collection and storage of photographs online from children, as well as placement of cookies used for types of behavioral advertising.” Claiming that “several of the child-directed websites we investigated place third-party cookies both on the computer of the child that initially visits the website and on the computers of friends who click on the link in refer-a-friend emails,” coalition members claim that “[s]ome, if not all, of these cookies may be used for tracking and/or behavioral targeting.” They contend that this use of cookies and “persistent identifiers” is at odds with COPPA and should be prohibited “unless the operator first provides effective notice and obtains verifiable advance parental consent.”  

Georgetown Law Professor Angela Campbell, who is providing counsel to coalition leader the Center for Digital Democracy, contends that such “tell-a-friend” practices commercially exploit children and violate the law “because they are done without adequate notice to parents and without parental consent.” American University Professor of Communication Kathryn Montgomery, who apparently sought passage of COPPA in the 1990s, said,“These are particularly insidious practices. 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 practices— completely under the radar of parents.”  

A General Mills spokesperson reportedly responded to news of the complaints by claiming that the advocacy organizations “have mischaracterized or misunderstood” the issue and that COPPA “permits ‘send-to-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.” Speaking on behalf of McDonald’s, Danya Proud apparently indicated that the “alleged complaint was shared with members of the media under embargo. McDonald’s was not provided the opportunity to review in advance. As such, it would be inappropriate to comment or speculate.” The coalition claims that McDonald’s, by allegedly storing photographs taken or uploaded by children using its Website in unprotected publicly accessible directories, “fails to protect children’s photographs from unauthorized outside access.”  

Other coalition participants include the Berkeley Media Studies Group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, Public Citizen, Public Health Advocacy Institute, and Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale. See Center for Digital Democracy News Release and Advertising Age, August 22, 2012.