WASHINGTON — Consumer watchdog and privacy groups are urging federal regulators to stop some major companies from soliciting email addresses of children — without parental consent — to market products to them.
The groups said five companies used kid-themed websites — such as McDonald's Corp.'s HappyMeal.com and Turner Broadcasting System's CartoonNetwork.com — to encourage children to play online games or participate in activities, then share their experiences by providing email addresses of their friends.
The marketing practices highlight the need to update a 1998 law designed to protect the privacy of children on the Internet, the groups said Tuesday in preparation for filing complaints Wednesday with the Federal Trade Commission.
"The FTC should act promptly to stop this commercial exploitation of children," said Georgetown Law Professor Angela Campbell, legal counsel for the Center for Digital Democracy, which is leading the effort for the watchdog groups.
Others cited by the groups are General Mills Inc. and its ReesesPuffs.com and TrixWorld.com sites, Viacom Inc. and its Nick.com site and Doctor's Associates Inc. and its SubwayKids.com site.
Turner Broadcasting said it would review the allegations. General Mills and Subway said they were "compliant" with federal law. Viacom would not comment on the allegations. McDonald's did not respond to requests for comment.
The FTC this month proposed several changes to the law to keep up with technological advances, such as downloadable plug-ins for websites. The advocacy groups want the agency to go further to deal with new forms of viral marketing aimed at children younger than 13.
On the Happy Meal site, for example, a child can appear in a music video about healthy eating by uploading a photograph that is placed on a dancing cartoon character. The child then is encouraged to share the video with as many as four friends by providing their names and email addresses.
The friends then get an email with a link to the video saying, "You've been tagged for fun by a friend! Check it out!"
"Such tell-a-friend campaigns, a powerful form of word-of-mouth marketing traditionally directed at teens and adults, are inherently unfair and deceptive when aimed at children who often aren't aware that they are being asked to generate advertising messages," the groups said.
Among 14 groups filing the formal complaint are the Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
The groups are asking the FTC to investigate the websites and stop the refer-a-friend practices because they violate privacy laws for children by not requiring consent from the parents of the children whose email addresses are being shared.
The groups also want the agency to look at prohibiting some marketing practices, such as the online storage of photos from children and the placing of tracking cookies on their computers, as it revises rules stemming from the 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.
In their letter to the FTC, the advocacy groups said HappyMeal.com stores the photos children upload to the site for various activities "in unprotected, publicly accessible directories."
The site tells children the photo is stored for two weeks and then deleted, but a photo uploaded Aug. 2 was still stored on the site as of Monday, the groups said.
James L. Anderson, a spokesman for Turner Broadcasting, said: "Cartoon Network takes its compliance with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act … very seriously."
Viacom spokesman David Bittler said the company could not comment because it had not seen the complaint. But he said that Nick.com does not store or record the email addresses children provide to share things from the site with friends. General Mills said it also did not retain such email addresses.
Among the changes proposed by the FTC are to require parents be given notice if a site wants to post a photo or video of their child. The agency also wants to classify any photos or videos from children that include their image to be personal information, which sites cannot store.