Wednesday, December 5, 2007

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Attorney General Abbott Takes Action Against Web Sites That Illegally Collect Personal Information from Minors

AUSTIN – Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott today took legal action against two Web sites that cater to children but fail to adequately protect their privacy and safety. Texas is the first state to file an enforcement action under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a federal law that generally prohibits Web sites from unnecessarily collecting personal information from children under 13.

According to Attorney General investigators, TheDollPalace.com and Gamesradar.com unlawfully collect personal information such as names, ages, and home addresses from children. Investigators also discovered that the sites’ parental consent features were easily manipulated and circumvented. The lack of reasonable controls readily allow children to access the sites’ various features, including interactive chat rooms and forums, without their parents’ knowledge.

Media links

View Video of News Conference

Video of the Defendants' Web sites
COPPA website
Photo of Web sites
Texas Attorney General's lawsuit against the Doll Palace Corporation
Texas Attorney General's lawsuit against Gamesradar.com
Children's Online Privacy Protection Act
Frequently Asked Questions (FTC)

“These defendants are charged with operating child-oriented Web sites that violate the law by failing to protect young users,” Attorney General Abbott said. “Federal law provides important protections to prevent children from divulging sensitive personal information and to shield them from inappropriate sexual or violent content online. The Office of the Attorney General will continue aggressively enforcing laws to protect young Internet users.”

Both Web sites violate COPPA by failing to include necessary disclosures and failing to obtain parental consent before collecting personal information from children. TheDollPalace.com, for example, simply asks young users who are attempting to register, “Is a parent with you right now?” Children who click “Yes” are directed to a page that allows them to simply click “OK” to vague disclosures regarding information collection and use. Gamesradar.com similarly fails to properly obtain parental consent.

Under COPPA, these Web sites must make a greater effort to ensure that parents consent to their children providing personal information online. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers several options for Web site operators to obtain verifiable parental consent. Among them, the FTC recommends that Web sites maintain a toll-free telephone number staffed by trained personnel for parents to call in their consent or provide a form for the parent to print, complete, sign, and mail or fax back to Web site operators.

Investigators also found that the sites allow children to access potentially inappropriate content. TheDollPalace.com allows users to access chat rooms and interactive forums that discuss topics parents may find inappropriate for young children.

COPPA further prohibits sites from requiring children to disclose excessive personal information as a precondition to participating in online games and features. Today’s enforcement action alleges that TheDollPalace.com requires children to fill out a 10-page personal profile in order to meet other site users and “search for friends.” The questionnaire asks children for detailed personal information, such as height, weight and eye color, and personal habits, including smoking and drinking behaviors. It also asks children about the type of person they would like to meet, including the options, “I would like to meet someone older than myself,” “My idea of a fun date,” and “sexual issues.” Despite collecting this detailed information, much of it does not appear on the user’s profile nor is it otherwise used for purposes of allowing users to meet and interact.

Attorney General Abbott has earned a national reputation for aggressively arresting and prosecuting online child predators. In light of today’s enforcement actions, Attorney General Abbott reminded parents to closely monitor their children’s Internet activities by using the following safety tips:

• Teach children never to give out personal information such as their last name, birthday, home address or telephone number, especially in a chat room, over an online bulletin board, or to an online pen pal, without your permission.
• Make sure your children know never to agree to a face-to-face meeting with someone they meet online.
• Instruct your children never to respond to e-mail or chat messages that make them feel uncomfortable or from someone they don’t know. Stress that they should show such messages to you.
• Surf the Internet with your kids. If it is not possible for you to actually surf with your children, at least talk to them about the Web sites they are visiting.
• Place the computer in a public room in your home so that even when you are not surfing online with your children, you can monitor their use. Do not allow computers in a child’s bedroom or permit the use of Web cams.
• Establish ground rules for your children’s Internet usage, including the hours they may surf and the kinds of Web sites they may visit. Post the rules near the computer.
• Learn how to use parental controls and archiving features. You should be able to check your child’s e-mail account and review the sites your child has visited on the Internet.

To find out more about Attorney General Abbott’s efforts to protect children and crack down on online predators, visit the Attorney General’s Web site at www.texasattorneygeneral.gov or call (800) 252-8011.