CARU Recommends Sony Online Entertainment Modify Website To Better Protect Children’s Privacy; Company Agrees To Do So

 New York, NY – Sept. 14,  2009 – The Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus has recommended that Sony Online Entertainment, operator of the Website, www.FreeRealms.com, modify the Website to better protect children’s privacy. The company has agreed to do so.

CARU monitors websites for compliance with CARU’s Self-Regulatory Program for Children’s Advertising (the Guidelines) including guidelines on Online Privacy Protection.

The Website, according to its online Parents Guide, is a virtual world designed primarily for a teen and “tween” audience.  The homepage features colorful illustrations of characters from the virtual world, including humans, fairies, and talking animals, and encourages visitors to “Play Now!” and “Join Free!”  Visitors to the Website must register to play the online game or to redeem promotional points from Free Realms trading cards.

When CARU first examined the site,  those seeking to register were asked to create a character, username and password, and enter their country of residence and age from drop-down menus.  If a potential registrant selected an age under 13, the registrant was directed to a page requiring a parent’s email address, but could then click on the back button to select an age of 13 or older. Registrants who identified themselves as 13 or older could provide personally identifiable information (PII) – including a full name, street address, telephone number and email address – to both the operator of the site and to others participating in the virtual world.

Registrants under the age of 13, whose parents received notice and an opportunity to opt out, could not disclose PII.

After reviewing the Website for compliance with CARU’s Guidelines, CARU was concerned with the lack of a tracking mechanism during the age-screening process to prevent children under 13 from misrepresenting their ages.

Following CARU’s inquiry letter, the Website operator agreed to place its session cookie directly after a child enters an age to prevent potential registrants who have already indicated they are under 13 from using the back button to return to the registration page and enter an age of 13 or older. CARU noted that it appreciated the company’s cooperation.

Sony Online Entertainment, in its operator’s statement, said the company “applauds CARU for its longstanding efforts to protect children, fully supports that goal and appreciates being given the opportunity to participate in the self-regulatory process.”