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Are Websites Collecting Info on Kids Without Parental Consent?

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"commercial exploitation of children."

A coalition of children's advocacy groups is accusing several websites geared toward children -- among them McDonald's, General Mills and Cartoon Network -- of "unfair and deceptive marketing" and collecting information on those under 13 without parental consent.

The coalition led by the Center for Digital Democracy made a formal complaint to the Federal Trade Commission Wednesday accusing six websites of violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires parental consent before information is collected on a visitor under the age of 13.

Those included in the complaint are McDonald's HappyMeal.com, General Mills' ReesesPuffs.com and TrixWorld.com, Doctor's Associates SubwayKids.com, Viacom's Nick.com, and Turner Broadcastings CartoonNetwork.com. The issue taken with these sites, according to the Center for Digital Democracy, was marketing that involved "tell-a-friend" or "refer-a-friend," which in turn encouraged children to share their friend's email addresses.

Georgetown Law professor Angela Campbell called it in a statement "very troubling" that these websites were collecting email addresses in this manner and noted that she considers this "commercial exploitation of children."

The New York Times reports several of the accused websites noting the importance of online privacy and stating they believe they are in compliance with the law:

In an e-mail, Tom Forsythe, a spokesman for General Mills, said the company followed approved practices. It does not collect the original child’s e-mail address and sends only one e-mail to that child’s friend, he said.

In an e-mail, James Anderson, a spokesman for Turner, said the Cartoon Network took compliance with the children’s online privacy law seriously and would review any accusations closely. A spokesman for Subway said the company takes online privacy seriously and complies with the law.

Still, what the coalition calls for, in addition to an investigation into these accusations by the FTC, are additional regulations to be added to the law regarding targeting children and data collection. The Times explains the group wants protection to include regulations on cookies and other tracking codes that could collect data of online movements.

The coalition also takes issue with the use of children's photographs on the Web posted without parental permission.

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