Today, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced an $835,000 settlement with Viacom, Hasbro, Mattel, and Jumpstart over online tracking on children’s websites.
The Attorney General’s investigation found that websites for Barbie, Dora the Explorer, and other popular children’s brands were tracking users to serve ads. While common on the web, ad tracking is forbidden for sites directed at children under 13 by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (or COPPA).
"While the law has been very clear on this," Schneiderman said in an announcement. "It’s not been clear what companies have been doing to comply with it."
As part of the settlement, each company has agreed to withdraw third-party trackers, as well as conducing regular scans and vetting vendors to ensure they’re in compliance with COPPA in the future.
"We used to worry about our children wandering into bad neighborhoods."
According to AG Schneiderman, his office became aware of the problem while performing an earlier investigation into payday lending. When one of the "undercover" computers navigated to a children’s site, investigators saw an ad for payday lending, indicating the presence of targeted ads on the site.
Despite COPPA’s specific protections for services directed at children, third-party tracking is nearly inescapable on the modern web, and Google is by far the most popular source for that tracking. A Princeton Web Census survey conducted earlier this year found that more than 45 percent of the top million sites included a tracker for Google’s Doubleclick for Publishers service.
This isn’t not the first time those ad targeting systems have landed kid’s websites in court. A civil suit filed in 2012 accused Google and Viacom of tracking children’s activities on Nickelodeon’s nick.com site, in violation of New Jersey privacy statutes. An appeals court ruling earlier this summer found that only Viacom was responsible. The extent of the damages are still being determined by lower courts.
"We used to worry about our children wandering into bad neighborhoods," Schneiderman said. "Now our children live online, and we have to police the internet the same way we police the streets."