Five days to come up with $1 million? It’s not the log line for a movie. Those are the terms of the settlement agreement between the Federal Trade Commission and the operator  of fan websites for artists such as Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Selena Gomez. It’s a penalty for improperly collecting information from children younger than 13 in violation of Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Just to be clear, the complaint was not against the artists like Rihanna or Bieber.  A few words are merited about what led to the stiff penalty against Artist Arena, the digital service provider to pop-stars.

COPPA, enacted in 1998 and now under review, requires children-focused websites, general websites with a kid area or general audience websites that have actual knowledge that a visitor is younger than 13 to get parental consent before collecting or sharing information from children younger than 13.

“Marketers need to know that even a bad case of Bieber Fever doesn’t excuse their legal obligation to get parental consent before collecting personal information from children,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz in a statement the day after the decree.

As an exercise in morally neutral arithmetic, the price for acquiring the offending information to Artist Arena appears to have been $10 per child. How so? The FTC notes that the firm knowingly registered more than 25,000 children younger than 13 and collected information from 75,000 more youngsters who began but did not complete the registration process.  If Artist Arena truly did this knowingly, they hypothetically got 100,000 data points and a fine of $1 million.

Even at a price that at least some marketing agencies would pay for valuable demographic info tied to viable contact info, it’s now a total loss. The settlement required Artist Arena to delete all offending data within 10 days.

Surprisingly, Artist Arena’s timeline to delete all the info (presumably, a few keystrokes) was twice as long as to deliver (via wire transfer only) $1 million to the federal government.

On an shorter timeline, Artist Arena updated their Terms & Conditions on Oct. 3, 2012, the  same day the consent decree was entered in U.S. District Court in New York. A bold and underlined “Note Regarding the Use of the Site By Children” now appears at the top of Artist Arena’s Privacy Policy page, above this:

“NOTICE: Visit www.OnGuardOnline.gov for tips from the Federal Trade Commission on protecting kids’ privacy online. “

There’s nothing about the Rihanna official fan site that is geared to those younger than 13.  In fact, both of her official fan sites that mirror each other –- Rihanna.com and RihannaNow.com –- land on a giant close-up photo of what appears to be everyone’s favorite Barbadian rolling a joint.

Because the FTC relies, in part, on empirical website user-data in determining whether a site is “geared towards children,” the photo suggests the site was not geared toward youngsters at all. Thus, it’s possible that Artist Arena surpassed the “actual knowledge” threshold required of general audience sites by collecting info even from those who typed in a birthday year making them younger than 13.

That hypothesis speaks to Artist Arena’s business model. Their own website indicates they provide artists with fan-club only ticketing services, website design and overall fan base engagement and monetization.

According to ArtistArena.com, Green Day, Diana Krall and Smashing Pumpkins also are  current or former Artist Arena clients.

A factor in the FTC’s decision to pursue ArtistArena  may be the number of children involved in the collection. In declining to pursue action against AGirlLikeU.com back in 2008 (now a dead link), the FTC explained that the site had had only collected information from a “small number” of children and when alerted, deactivated the online activities that led to the information collection.

But how effective are the government moves? The Biederman Blog tried to join the fan club on Rihanna.com two weeks after the settlement. The birth years on the site’s drop-down menu began in 2008. The parent company of Rihanna’s record label —  Universal Music Group — had inserted a Privacy Policy with a link above the “submit” button. Sign up as a 3-year-old and access will be denied and the site refers you to the UMG privacy policy page.

But try registering as a 12-year-old who turns 13 “tomorrow?” Denied again.

What happens if you declare you’re 13-years-old now? Bingo! Within minutes, a “Welcome to the Rihanna Mailing List” email popped up in a Biederman Blog editors’ inbox.

By the way, the FTC offers an email hotline for COPPA Compliance: CoppaHotLine@ftc.gov

 Screengrab Illustration from: https://www.rihannanow.com/newsletter/