GamesRadar Charges from TX Attorney General

The following link will take you to the gallery where the full open records request for the GamesRadar Story from last week is held. This is a big case for all of the gaming industry... I suggest very highly all of you that are interested in the future of gaming news and reporting give this document a very serious look...

Phone calls to Pamela Perkins of the TX Attorney General's Office were not returned as of this posting. Check back or click "Read More" for some of the interesting insights into the case from my personal perspective (coming soon).

After reviewing the documentation provided to BlueAlien.org from the Attorney General for the state of Texas’ Office I can see how GamesRadar has become a target for the enforcement of the COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act). To break the document down we’ll go step-by-step through what I think are the interesting points that could set a precedent and come up in other video game website proceedings.

GamesRadar_OpenRecords-3On page 2 of the actual document we see that under the section of “Jurisdiction and Venue” (paragraph 3) that the allegations stemmed from complaints arising from the “Western District of Texas, Austin Division…” because “a substantial part of the events giving rise to the claims alleged herein occurred within the Western District of Texas…”

Paragraph 6 is really where the claims against GamesRadar (and Future US Inc.) are laid out, “…Plaintiff alleges that Defendant is causing harm to the safety and privacy of children online, and as such Plaintiff has reason to believe that an interest of the residents of Texas has been or is threatened or adversely affected by Defendant’s practices as alleged herein.”

GamesRadar_OpenRecords-4In paragraph 9 we get some hints at why GamesRadar is being targeted and what the state of Texas sees as “inappropriate for children.” Some of the content that they list as “inappropriate for children” should raise some concern in the modding community as they list as examples “violent content and downloads that modify games to make characters appear nude.” This could mean that any site that allows downloads of things like the nude Tomb Raider mod or any nude character model for Quake/Half-Life/etc could fall into this same category is a precedent is set by any court ruling on this matter on behalf of the State of Texas.

GamesRadar_OpenRecords-5In paragraph 11 the paperwork outlines all the information that GamesRadar collects from its users including “first and last name, electronic mail (‘e-mail’) address, physical address, including city, state, country and zip code, gender, and date of birth.” I would argue that most websites collect some form of this kind of information, with exception to a physical address, which I think is one of the main problems the state of Texas may have with this registration.

Paragraph 12 is really where we get an idea of some of the underlying problems in GamesRadar’s registration or children. According to the paperwork “Defendant also represents that if users under thirteen try to register, they are ‘screened via a [sic] online age check that uses cookies.’” Now, if I were to tell you that by you visiting BlueAlien.org I could use cookies to tell how old you are… what would you say to me? You’d tell me that’s virtually impossible right? Riiiight.

GamesRadar_OpenRecords-6In paragraph 13 the Texas Attorney General’s Office goes even further to point out that GamesRadar encouraged children to “lie about their age by requiring them to choose their birth year from a drop-down menu. The menu, however, only gives the user the option to select a year that would generally make the user thirteen or older (e.g. currently the drop down menu only includes the years 1994 and before).” Every website that includes these sort of age verifying mechanisms should have a robot in the background right now failing calling out ‘Danger Will Robinson! Danger! Danger!’ Ultimately what this comes down to is that the website is responsible based on it’s content for causing children to lie by not giving them an option not too if they want to partake in some of the sites activities. While the blame there is still ambiguous at best the issue with the drop-down age box is clear. If your site is using this type of age authentication and it does NOT give the option for someone to put they are under 13 then I would scrap it immediately!

The paperwork also claims that GamesRadar “stick its head in the sand” with regard to its compliance to COPPA. Then in paragraph 15 we discover that GamesRadar also is not asking for any form of parental consent for children of any age. One of the more frightening things listed that I believe could be a big issue for ALL gaming websites is that the suit alleges that “although the home page of the Web site contains a link to the Defendant’s privacy policy, the link, is neither clearly labeled nor placed in a clear and prominent location.” I ask this of you, my fellow readers, when have you EVER seen a privacy policy that was “clearly labeled” or in a “prominent location” on any webpage? If GamesRadar is found guilty of wrongdoing this could set a precedent that would leave a lot of webmasters pondering the meaning of “prominent location.” I suggest 40-point font… dead center. Better safe than sorry!

GamesRadar_OpenRecords-7Beginning at paragraph 17 the actual charges are set out in 4 parts (that are generally paraphrased as follows):
1. The issue with its privacy policy outlining uses of information collected
2. Failure to provide notice to parents about the information collected
3. Failing to obtain parental consent before collecting/disclosing information
4. Conditioning a child to disclose more personal information than is reasonably necessary

GamesRadar_OpenRecords-9Paragraph 20 states that the State of Texas wishes to be “awarded damages, restitution, or other compensation on behalf of the residents of the State…” A call to the Texas Attorney General’s Office has not yet been returned.

Ultimately I believe this case comes down to an issue of social responsibility. As many of us in the industry know gaming websites cater to a variety of age ranges and any website worth its advertising is going to put up whatever news/reviews/contests it thinks will draw in the most clicks and search engine hits. In this editor’s opinion GamesRadar may have been able to do more to give legitimacy to its registration process but even if children were able to register with their correct age that does not mean they always will. How many 99 year old teenagers are there on MySpace? How many children understand how to thwart the system to see questionable content? ‘Click yes if you’re over 18… SURE I am!’ *click*

As a webmaster myself I believe the most concerning parts of this complaint are those regarding the hosting of modding tools for gaming as a violation of COPPA and issues regarding the relevancy and prominence of the privacy policies on a webpage. I think all web-admins of gaming sites should be concerned about the nature of information they collect… it’s one of the main reasons we do not run any sort of message board system here at BlueAlien.org. It’s never been a priority and it opens up a huge area of liability (particularly in areas regarding slander and laible). So I hope you all write GamesRadar and the Texas Attorney General voicing your opinions as well as keeping a close eye on BlueAlien.org as we continue to cover this story.