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AG: 4 companies agree to stop online tracking of children

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman holds

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman holds a news conference Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016, at his Manhattan office to announce that his office has reached settlements with four media companies that violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Four major media companies have agreed to begin policing their websites to make sure that online activities of children are not being tracked, state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said Tuesday.

Viacom, Mattel, Hasbro and JumpStart Games have agreed to perform regular security scans of their sites and to screen advertisers who place ads, Schneiderman said.

The companies host many websites popular with children, including sites associated with Nick Jr. and Nickelodeon, Barbie, Hot Wheels and My Little Pony, he said.

In a news release, Schneiderman said a two-year investigation “discovered the websites operated by these companies were home to tracking technology that illegally enabled third-party vendors, such as marketers or advertising companies, to track children’s online activity” in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

The tracking software is used by third-party firms that collect the information and sell it to advertisers, he said.

“You track people so you can market to them,” he said at a news conference.

The host sites often are unaware of the tracking, he said.

Three of the companies, Viacom, Mattel and JumpStart, also agreed to pay a combined $835,000 in penalties, Schneiderman said. Because Hasbro took part in an FTC-approved “safe harbor” program, it was not called on to pay a penalty, the news release said.

Having “cooperated fully” on the investigation, Hasbro also “welcomed the opportunity to bolster our privacy practices in connection with today’s settlement,” said a statement from Julie Duffy, senior vice president of global communication.

The company “will be more closely vetting and monitoring companies that work on our behalf,” the statement said. Also, “we are rolling out a new, stricter online privacy protection policy for our partners, and enacting new protocols and technology to scan our digital properties for any cookies, widgets or other applications that may violate our policy.”

A statement from David Bittler, spokesman for Nickelodeon, which is under the umbrella of Viacom, said the company “takes very seriously its longstanding commitment to protecting children’s privacy, and we work hard in today’s fast-changing digital landscape to insure our COPPA compliance.” Also, under the agreement, “which resolves an investigation of an earlier generation of Nickelodeon websites, Viacom has committed to continue to be at the forefront of children’s safety.”

According to a statement from JumpStart, its only game “alleged to be in violation” was Neopets, a property it acquired in 2014, and the company’s only “game that is not marketed to kids, and as such, only a very small percentage of Neopets’ registered users are under the age of 13.”

Over the past two years, the company has “taken a number of steps to address privacy including switching ad providers, vetting ads, and reviewing and revising internal privacy policies,” the statement said. In its “ongoing process,” the company “will continue to enact all possible measures to protect children and ALL our users’ privacy and data.”

Federal law going back two decades has forbidden online tracking of children, Schneiderman said, but it has been unclear up until now how that was being enforced by the host websites.

Tracking adults is legal, he said, “pretty much open season” for advertisers.

“Kids under 12 — you can’t track them,” Schneiderman said.

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