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Operator of fan websites settles FTC privacy charge for $1m

NEW YORK — The operator of fan websites for pop stars Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Rihanna, and Demi Lovato agreed to pay a $1 million civil penalty to settle federal charges that the sites had illegally collected personal information about thousands of young children, the Federal Trade Commission said Wednesday.

In a complaint, the FTC alleged that Artist Arena, the operator of the sites, had violated a children’s online privacy rule by collecting personal details — like the names, e-mail addresses, street addresses, and cellphone numbers — of about 101,000 children aged 12 or younger without their parents’ permission.

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The law, called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA , requires operators of websites to notify parents and obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting, using, or disclosing personal information about children younger than 13.

The sites are BieberFever.com, SelenaGomez.com, RihannaNow.com, and DemiLovatoFanClub.net, which is no longer in operation. The agency did not accuse the pop stars themselves of any wrongdoing.

At a conference on children’s marketing in New York on Wednesday, Edith Ramirez, a member of the FTC, said the settlement still needs to be ratified in court.

As part of the registration process, the four fan sites asked users to submit personal details, including their birth dates, that would enable members to create online profiles, post messages, and sign up for newsletters about the pop stars, the complaint said. Because the sites therefore knew the children’s ages, the FTC charged that the company had knowingly collected information and failed to properly notify their parents.

“These were fan sites that knew that a very substantial percentage of users were 12 or under,’’ said David C. Vladeck, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. ‘‘There is really no excuse for violations like these.’’

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Artist Arena, a division of Warner Music Group that manages artist fan clubs, neither admitted nor denied the agency’s allegations. A spokesman for Artist Arena, declined to comment. The fan sites no longer allow children under 13 to register as members.

The proposed settlement comes at a time when the agency is preparing to extensively strengthen the children’s online privacy protection rule for the first time since its introduction more than a decade ago.

In an effort to keep pace with innovations like mobile apps and facial recognition technology, the agency has proposed widening both the kinds of data about children that would require parental consent and the kinds of operators — like advertising networks or data miners — whose data-collection activities could be subject to the rule.

Last week, major corporations like Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Viacom pushed back, submitting public comments to the FTC in which they argued that some of the proposed changes were so unworkable that they could deter companies from providing sites and online services to children.

But the case of the pop star websites bolsters the viability of at least one of the FTC’s proposals: that child-friendly sites aimed at audiences of varying ages must either assume all users are under 13, or screen users for age to identify those for whom data collection requires prior parental consent.

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