Hey, Sony, leave those kids alone: Settlement in COPPA case

The largest COPPA settlement to date was handed down Thursday when Sony BMG agreed to pay out $1 million for having collected and used without parental consent personal information on tens of thousands of kids under 13.

The violations of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act involved 196 fan sites for musical acts such as Good Charlotte, Kelly Clarkson, Chris Brown, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. According to the US Federal Trade Commission complaint, Sony BMG's sign-up process for viewing and participating in such sites required the user to enter their name, date of birth, email address, mobile phone number, gender, city, state, and country.

COPPA specifies fairly clear privacy protections for the 12-and-under set. But even though the site claimed that visitors under 13 would be "restricted from participating in Sony Music's Web page activities," they were not. Neither were such accounts flagged with a cookie or other means of telling whose information couldn't legally be retained.

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Eventually, Sony Music's databank held information on over 30,000 kids, many of whom went on to build profile pages (which could display their age), enroll in fan clubs that sent e-mail to them directly, and so forth. Sony Music (formerly Sony BMG, and still often referred to as such) neither took the steps to get in touch with parents concerning their kids' participation nor gave parents the required ability to review the information collected from their kids, or to have it deleted.

Bad Sony! No biscuit! "Sites with social networking features, like any Web sites, need to get parental consent before collecting kids' personal information," said FTC Chairman William E. Kovacic. "Sony Music is paying the penalty for falling down on its COPPA obligations."

The penalty works out to around $33/child. The order also requires that Sony Music clean up its act, delete all the improperly collected information, acquaint its employees with the FTC's "How to Comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule" factsheet, and abide by various other record-keeping, reporting, and compliance standards.

The kids won't be seeing any of that money for themselves. In fact, the result most likely to affect users of Sony Music's sites involves new links to the FTC. The settlement requires that for the next five years, there should appear on Sony Music's sites links to the COPPA section on ftc.gov and, on pages where one can create a publicly viewable profile, to the social networking section of the FTC's onguardonline.gov.

Sony Music was not available for comment on our deadline.

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