CARU Has a Song of Modification for Karaoke App

Advertising Law

A karaoke app should modify its privacy practices to achieve compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and the Children’s Advertising Review Unit’s (CARU) guidelines, the self-regulatory body has recommended.

StarMaker Interactive touted its StarMaker mobile app as “the amazing karaoke app which lets you pick top songs from a massive catalogue and sing karaoke like the star you are!” The app works in conjunction with StarMaker’s SelfieMic, a selfie stick with a microphone attached to it that connects with a smartphone, and is no stranger itself to CARU oversight.

The website stated: “Please be advised that all app users should be 13 years plus and have parental supervision.” Product packaging recommends the SelfieMic for ages 8 and older, and the product can be found in the toy and child-related areas of online retailers and in the toy section at brick and mortar stores.

To register for an account, a visitor must provide an email address or cell phone number, or sign in with a Facebook or Google Plus account. Once registered, a user can share personally identifiable information with the app and other members, including audio and video recordings, full name, and photos.

When CARU reviewed the app, it noted that “the majority” of the videos that appear feature teens and young adults, but also observed “many accounts” that featured children who appeared to be, or identified themselves as, younger than 13 years of age. StarMaker did not age-screen before collecting personal information from visitors.

CARU expressed concern that the app attracts a substantial number of children under 13 and could therefore be considered an online service directed to children under both COPPA and CARU. As such, the app should not collect or allow the disclosure of personally identifiable information without first obtaining verifiable parental consent, the self-regulatory body said.

Although StarMaker stated that the app is not directed to children under 13 years of age, CARU determined the app met the criteria of an online service directed to children. The subject matter and functionality of the app appealed to children, who can create a karaoke-style audio or video recording with their smartphone and use the app’s editing tools to create special effects (color enhancements, auto-tune and time-lapse effects, for example).

The visual content of the app also appeals to children under the age of 13 because “its content features a large audience of teens and their peers performing their favorite songs,” CARU wrote. “As it is typical for children to model up their behaviors, an App that features teens would naturally attract a large number of children, especially tweens.”

In addition, the music catalog offered kid-friendly choices such as Disney soundtracks, and the advertising promoting the app—including product packaging for the SelfieMic—was directed to those 8 and up.

“CARU considered but was not persuaded by the Operator’s assertion that the App is targeted to a general audience because its Terms of Service state the App is for use by users 13 years of age or older,” according to the decision. “The Operator partnered with a product that was likely to attract and be used by a larger number of children under the age of 13. While the App continues to be promoted to children on advertising for the [SelfieMic], the Operator should expect that children will be downloading and using the App in a manner consistent with advertising for the product.”

Having concluded that the StarMaker app, while not primarily directed to children, is directed to children under the criteria set forth under COPPA, CARU advised the company to step up its privacy protections. StarMaker implemented an age-screen to block children from registering for the app during the review process, but that was not the right answer, the self-regulatory body said.

“As a mixed audience service, the App is not permitted to totally block children under 13 from engaging with the App,” CARU wrote. “In the instant case, the Operator’s obligations are not met by merely instituting an age-gate. In light of the fact that the App is directed to children, it may age-screen but it then must either obtain parental consent or provide child visitors with content consistent with what is being advertised to them and does not involve the collection, use or disclosure of personal information.”

In its Operator’s Statement, StarMaker accepted the decision and noted it has already “started efforts to incorporate changes to our App.”

To read CARU’s press release about the decision, click here.

Why it matters: The decision provides an important reminder for operators of apps and websites that even if children under the age of 13 aren’t the primary audience, other factors—such as the advertising, subject matter or visual content—may mean an app or site is directed to children and thus subject to COPPA requirements.