#HellNoBarbie: The Social Media Campaign Against The New Talking Doll

Hello Barbie is displayed at the Mattel showroom at the North American International Toy Fair, Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015 in New York. Mattel, in partnership with San Francisco startup ToyTalk, will release the Internet-connected version of the doll that has real conversations with kids in late 2015. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Why are some parents saying #HellNoBarbie?

Barbie has become an iconic toy for little girls everywhere and it hasn’t been without tons of controversy. Throughout the years, many have criticized the popular doll. Some say it promotes a unrealistic body image to impressionable little girls, others say it lacks true gender equality. With each complaint, the doll’s maker, Mattel has answered back with a new product. Barbie has held every occupation imaginable, teaching girls that they can be whatever they want to be. The company has even become more conscious of the type of body image the doll portrays. With all of these changes, critics have found yet another problem with Barbie.

Recently, the company introduced the ‘Hello Barbie’ doll. Hello Barbie is the first Internet-connected doll and is capable to carry on a realistic conversation with the child playing with it. Mattel explains that the doll operates by recording the child and sending the data to the cloud via Wi-Fi. Once it has been analyzed, the doll will respond with a computer-generated response. Critics are going crazy over this new innovation with many claiming the doll will tread on their privacy. One of the most outspoken critics of this toy is the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC). With a mission of fighting any marketing for children, CCFC believes that this artificial intelligence technology has no place in a child’s toy. Their main source of contention is with ToyTalk, the software company that Mattel uses. The San Francisco company stores and analyzes all conversations sent to the cloud.

“Hello Barbie is a terrible toy that threatens children’s privacy, well-being and creativity,” says CCFC’s executive director. “We must stop Mattel and ToyTalk from spying on children’s private play and spawning a whole host of eavesdropping imitators”

The group immediately launched a social media campaign against the toy called #HellNoBarbie.

Mattel made a public statement as the campaign spread throughout social media. In the statement, Mattel attempted to out the consumer’s fears at ease.

“Mattel and its partners, such as ToyTalk, take a number of steps to ensure all of our products conform with applicable laws and standards, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.”

The doll maker also says they will not use conversations as a part of their advertising. They also wanted to point out that parents must consent before Hello Barbie can be activated, connected to Wi-Fi or record.

“We are extremely concerned with the privacy, security and safety of the kids’ data,” said Martin Reddy, ToyTalk’s Chief Technical Officer “We don’t share any of those (audio) clips with Mattel and we certainly don’t use any of that content to advertise or market to kids. In fact, we would be breaking the law if we did that, so we won’t do that.”

Despite the fact that the doll was not released until the beginning of December, many parents are already voicing their concerns. Why does the conversation need to be stored? Why can’t the speech be analyzed, a response be generated and then deleted?

ToyTalk’s Chief Technical Officer, Martin Reddy explains that speech recognition with children is extremely difficult. In order to generate correct responses, ToyTalk employees will actually have to listen to a small amount of the recorded conversations.

Critics still say regardless on how safe the company promises the data is, there can always be hackers that can access information in the cloud. Some believe that the information reamed from these conversations could be used unlawfully.

There are also plenty of other issued raised by concerned parents. Just because a parent has consented to allow their child to play with the doll, what about any other child that is playing with it?

“Even if I consent to let my daughter’s conversations be listened to and shared, what right do I have to listen to the conversations of my daughter’s friends,” said a CCFC supporter. “There’s the potential for all sorts of abuse of this private information.”

This information could even end up the center of a court hearing. Privacy expert, Pam Dixon believes that these recorded conversations could be used against a parent during a divorce or custody dispute.

“I worry about children who are saying things about their parents that they would never tell anyone else.” Dixon said. “It’s just a toy, but this toy is really a sophisticated recording device and if it’s recorded, they’ll go after it. That’s how it works. I promise you, Hello Barbie would be a huge source of really private personal data about a child that could be used in litigation.”

Could a parent, desperate for the upper hand, provide incriminating evidence to their child custody attorneys? Reddy understands why some are hesitant, but he reassures parents that there is no reason to worry.

So, what do you think? Are you saying ‘Hello Barbie’ or #HellNoBarbie?

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