Will Roblox’ new advertising rules make a difference?
Colin Campbell, GameDaily.biz
Only users who are 13 and older can enter Walmart Discovered.
Walmart bills its latest entry into the Roblox metaverse, Walmart Discovered, as “a truly immersive destination where users can discover trending virtual items and creators of all sizes – from micro to macro – and those developers can monetize through sales of their virtual items via Robux, Roblox’s native currency.” In other words, much like Walmart.com, where consumers can buy real-life third-party products, Walmart Discovered allows Roblox users to buy virtual items from third parties.
Since it launched in September, the experience has been visited nearly 10 million times, but none of those visits have been from kids under 13 (or at least kids who have told Roblox they’re under 13). That’s because, despite Walmart indicating there are no applicable age guidelines, Roblox users who are under 13 cannot enter the experience.
Only users who are 13 and older can enter. What’s interesting, though, is that, as shown above, Walmart Discovered bears a COPPA Safe Harbor seal from the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, a self-regulatory group that is part of BBB National Programs. According to CARU, products advertised with its COPPA Safe Harbor seal comply with the requirements of the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, or COPPA, a rule designed to protect children under 13, not children 13 and older. In fact, COPPA imposes requirements on operators of websites or online services directed to children under 13, as well as those that have actual knowledge they’re collecting personal information from children under 13.
Which begs the question: Does Walmart have actual knowledge that kids under 13 are accessing its Roblox experience?
When asked why Walmart Discovered bears a COPPA Safe Harbor seal when it’s only accessible to those 13 and older, CARU told TINA.org:
Companies submit for certification to our COPPA Safe Harbor products for users under 13, as well as ensure compliance for their general audience offerings. Walmart Discovered carries our General Audience seal, ensuring that they do not trigger COPPA for a general audience product.
Of note, the only difference in appearance between CARU’s General Audiences seal and its Child-Directed Audiences seal is a small hand in the latter; both contain the words “COPPA Safe Harbor,” sending the message that any product or service displaying either seal complies with the federal privacy law.
In addition, and as TINA.org has raised with CARU before, children (of any age) are not able to enter a Walmart experience on Roblox without first signing in to Roblox (which requires providing a birth date and user name), agreeing to Roblox’s terms and conditions and using its platform to gain access to Walmart’s game. As such, parents and other reasonable consumers could assume that CARU has verified Roblox’s compliance with COPPA as it pertains to Walmart Discovered – a review that CARU did not disclose undertaking. This raises larger issues of how a safe harbor program can operate effectively when platforms are not approved by the program but applications on the platforms are. In response to TINA.org’s question as to whether it verified Roblox’s COPPA compliance, CARU stated that “Roblox’s COPPA Safe Harbor provider, KidSafe Seal, has assured us that the platform is COPPA-compliant.”
Previously, CARU said on its website that its COPPA Safe Harbor seal represents not just a privacy certification but an advertising certification as well.
[W]hen customers are faced with the question of who to trust in a dynamic child-directed marketplace, only a COPPA Safe Harbor seal can ensure that your products comply with the stringent requirements of the COPPA Rule, and only CARU’s COPPA Safe Harbor seal can demonstrate that your product’s advertising does as well.
Despite being an undisclosed advergame aimed at children, Universe of Play carried CARU’s COPPA Safe Harbor seal for child-directed audiences. Walmart quietly removed the game from Roblox after TINA.org alerted CARU to its findings.
In April 2022, TINA.org filed a complaint with the FTC regarding deceptive stealth advertising on Roblox in the form of undisclosed advergames directed at children, many of whom are unable to recognize the promotional nature and persuasive intent of such marketing material.
The bottom line
Companies and products approved by safe harbor programs are entitled to protections from FTC actions. As CARU stated in a March 2021 article titled, “Behind the seal: What does it mean to be a CARU Safe Harbor company?”:
Companies certified by the program … are virtually insulated from certain enforcement actions from the FTC.
That’s likely to appeal to a number of companies and may help explain Walmart’s participation in CARU’s voluntary program.
Find more of our coverage on Roblox here.
Colin Campbell, GameDaily.biz
Peter Adams, Marketing Dive
Universe of Play’s removal follows action led by TINA.org – and inaction from self-reg group.