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Webkinz children's site is subject of complaint to FTC

December 13, 2011 |  3:30 pm

The children's online site Webkinz is the focus of a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission by a child advocacy group, which is urging the agency to investigate corporate parent Ganz for alleged deceptive and unfair trade practices.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood on Tuesday accused the Canadian owner of the popular website of violating facets of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits the collecting and maintaining of children's personal information about users. The complaint alleges that Ganz fails to provide a link to its privacy policy on its home page, in violation of the act. It also contends that the policy is written in "vague, confusing and contradictory" language.

According to the complaint, Webkinz asks children to provide their first name, date of birth, gender and state of residence during registration, urging the users "it is important to use real information." As the child navigates the animated website, dubbed Webkinz World, Webkinz monitors the child's activity by depositing software to track his or her movements through the site, the complaint said. 

As the children play in Webkinz World -- which is aimed at children ages 6 to 13 and enables users to play games and interact with other members -- Ganz allows third parties to track their activities for behavioral advertising purposes, the advocacy group alleges.

Ganz says parents can "easily opt out" of having their children view ads, noting it is "committed to being highly responsible in our approach to advertising." But ads continue to appear on the site, even after parents have opted out, according to the complaint. In fact, the complaint said, ads are incorporated into Webkinz games such as "Wheel of Wow," which attracts some 4 million players a month.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood alleges that Ganz's privacy policy is deceptive because it states that the information it gathers from children during the registration process could not be used to identify the child offline. It further alleges that the practice of using software -- "cookies" and "web Beacons" -- to track children's activities and serve them targeted ads without parental consent "contravenes FTC guidance on behavioral advertising" and amounts to an unfair trade practice.

"Parents are undermined and children harmed when companies like Ganz offer misleading advertising policies," said Dr. Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood.

Elaine Parsons, Ganz's director of operations, said the company is reviewing the complaint but wasn't prepared to comment.


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Disney to pay $3 million settlement over children's online privacy

-- Dawn C. Chmielewski

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