FTC to investigate websites allegedly collecting data from children

As the years roll by, Internet users are getting more aware of the need to actively protect their privacy. But there is one group of people that is overwhelmingly unaware of the privacy pitfalls of Internet use: children.

To protect them from themselves, US legislators have instituted in 1998 the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which among other things prohibits website owners from asking for or collecting personal information of children below the age of 13 without their parents’ explicit permission

But as with any law, there are apparent loopholes that allow sites to collect some information, and that it what spurred a coalition of nearly 20 US children’s advocacy, health and public interest groups to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday.

The NYT reports that among the websites named in the complaint are McDonald’s HappyMeal.com; Nickelodeon’ Nick.com; General Mills’ ReesesPuffs.com and TrixWorld.com; SubwayKids.com; and Turner’s CartoonNetwork.com.

They stand accused of offering children games to play online, then asking them to “tell a friend” by providing the email of their friends – effectively bypassing the aforementioned law. Also, some of them have allegedly been tracking children’s activities online and asking them to to upload their photographs.

Many of the companies who run those sites commented on their practices by saying that they are within the bounds of the law, and some of them said that they would be investigating the allegations.

It remains to be seen what the FTC will conclude after the investigation.

In the meantime, the agency has recently proposed changes to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which would make children’s photos part of the protected personal information, would prevent the use of tracking codes to monitor their surfing habits, and would extend the rules to mobile devices.

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