Violation Of Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (“COPPA”) Costs Online Data Company Hefty Fine

The Internet has changed the landscape for many professions and occupations as we move into the 21st Century, but none should benefit more than the researcher.  Whether as a journalist, student or technician, your access to research just about everything in the world has multiplied dramatically.   Those who are able to exploit this access to meaningful enterprise will benefit from the added resources.  Troubling, however, is the failure of many in business and government to force businesses to identify themselves, and, even more troubling, the failure of individuals to demand that businesses, that they do business with, clearly identify the people behind those companies, and the whereabouts of the  business’ they represent.

If you’re unclear what you need to know to comply with COPPA here is what you need to know:

Nothing is more troubling, however, than the failure of government officials tasked with making sure our children are not being the object of online exploitation. That we can have the motley surfeit of fools checking toothpaste at the check-in counters of our airports, but not have enough people to enforce the risks of the Internet and a business community willing to self-monitor our children is downright stupid.
This subject is always close to home and it is our intention that anytime an online party is confronted by questions of misappropriating web space to exploit kids, we will make it an issue and cover it fully.

Today, in the NYTimes, we saw an opportunity to do something about it. The piece titled “Update Urged on Children’s Online Privacy” urges everyone to get involved and learn what to look for to protect your kids and families. The gist of it, for now, for me, was “The F.T.C. this year imposed a $50,000 fine on W3 Innovations, a company that produces mobile phone apps, for collecting personal information on children without proper parental consent.”
The first thing we do anytime a company like W3 is in the news is look to the social networks to see what they have to say about the company and those behind it. We look at their web sites, once we locate all of them, and notice there is no clear address or individuals names on the “About” page; then we look at the Facebook, LinkedIn and various first tiered groupings to see what is going on. At none of the sites we looked at, are there any individuals listed, there is no phone number or address listed. Here is the message you find:

About the Team
We are a mobile app development company started in Silicon Valley. We strive to create awesome mobile games that thrill and excite. Our team is made up of 4 people all with a wide array of experience. We look forward to taking on this challenge and we will be adding personal profiles soon.

After some cursory web surfing, we see that co-founders of the W3 consortium of web apps are the sibling team of Justin and Emily Maples. Their major claim to infamy these days is:

We are a small, family-owned and operated mobile device app developer based out of Silicon Valley. We are currently focused on developing for the Apple iPhone OS, and our current titles include Snaked, Chasing Colors, Santa’s Run, multiple Quizzle™ apps, Emily’s Girl Talk and Beer Toss, with Zombie Duck Hunt and others on the way.
Specialties iPhone games, iPhone apps, iPod Touch apps, Apple, mobile devices, software development, marketing, advertising, iPad, iPhone OS

Phone apps have spawned a cottage industry of web app developers who seem to have replaced the boomers of a decade ago who actually needed to create programs in order to reach success.  These days money is everywhere for these guys and if the object of the app developer is gathering personal data, the innovation doesn’t have to be revolutionary or disruptive to cause harm.  We are being assaulted by data gatherers who are not regulated or controlled and some of them need it.

According to Kat Hannaford from Gizmodo, who “credits” these folks with the way they handled the situation, “To the app developer’s credit, they settled quickly with the FTC, knowing that having collected over 30,000 email addresses doesn’t make them look too hot. Of more importance however is that the games required kids to enter their names, which contravenes the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Broken Thumbs Apps is deleting the data now, and has promised to lift its game in the future.” It does seem odd that the URL describing the story Kat wrote says, “illegally farming kids.”

I’m guessing that like article titles, writers don’t think up URL’s.

The complaint reads thus:
“Defendant W3 Innovations, LLC (“W3”), also doing business as Broken Thumbs
pps, is a California limited liability company with its principal office or place of business
located at 10390 Mann Drive, Cupertino, California 95014. W3 develops, markets, distributes, or sells software applications for mobile devices (“apps”) to consumers throughout the United States and provides online services to users of its apps. W3 transacts or has transacted business in the Northern District of California.
Defendant Justin Maples is the President and 56% owner of W3. At all times
material to this Complaint, acting alone or in concert with others, he has formulated, directed, controlled, had the authority to control, or participated in the acts and practices ofW3, including the acts and practices set forth in this Complaint. Defendant Justin Maples resides in this district and, in connection with the matters alleged herein, transacts or has transacted business in this district.”
Several of Defendants’ apps, including The Emily’s Girl World app, Emily’s Dress Up app, Emily’s Dress Up & Shop app, and Emily’s Runway High Fashion app, are directed to children. (See Exhibit A, copies of each app’s mains screen. These apps send and or receive information over the Internet, and thus are online services directed to children pursuant to COPPA.
Shortly after the February 2010 release of the Emily’s Girl World app, a posting to Defendants’ website described the app as “a fun story-telling app with charming graphics … which we thought that younger girls and nostalgic adults in particular might enjoy. Based on feedback from users, it seems that the core hit our target market …. “

We want to know, from Justin and his team, why there was no privacy policy on any of the sites and why there were names backing up the fact that these sites were safe for kids. Did Justin and his sister Emily not know they somehow forgot to allow anyone to contact them the way most legitimate businesses allow folks to see whose running things, before they decided to “target” kids so they could then sell the data they accumulated? Stay tuned and if you can help, we’d love to hear from you. Hawkatnethawkdotnet.


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