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Consumer advocates file FTC complaint over Google Play Store marketing to kids

Published Dec 19th, 2018 6:35PM EST
Google Play Store children's apps

Apps available for download in Google’s Play Store marketplace frequently expose kids to content that’s inappropriate and even trick some youngsters into unwittingly making in-app purchases. That’s according to a complaint that a collection of consumer and privacy advocates has filed today with the FTC.

The complaint calls for the FTC to “investigate whether Google is misrepresenting to parents that the apps in the Family section of the Play Store are child-appropriate when they are not, in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act.”

Groups behind the filing of the complaint include almost two dozen consumer and public health advocacy organizations. They’re led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy. They note that apps presented within the kids and family section of the Play Store are supposed to follow stipulations spelled out in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (also known as COPPA), but the problem as identified in the complaint is that Google doesn’t verify those apps’ compliance. Which is why the complaint asks the FTC to require that Google only include apps within that section — or to only say an app is kid-friendly — once the app has been subjected to testing and human review.

Again, from the complaint: “Many apps violate COPPA by collecting personal information from children without giving notice to parents and obtaining verifiable parental consent. Some apps that Google promotes as family-friendly also deploy unfair and deceptive advertising practices — such as manipulating kids to watch ads or make purchases in order to advance in a game.

“Our research also revealed that many apps feature inappropriate content for children. Google has known about several of these problems for some time, yet has not taken adequate steps to enforce its own criteria for developers. Thus it is imperative that the FTC swiftly investigate Google’s Play Store Family operations and stop these deceptive practices so that children will be protected.”

The CCFC’s executive director told TechCrunch that the complaint doesn’t call out Apple’s iOS app store, because there hasn’t been a similar analysis done there. And speaking of TC, a Google spokesperson also told the outlet it’s taking the issues raised in this complaint seriously. For example, the company has already removed thousands of apps from the family section this year, and it also rejects a third of applications.

“Parents want their children to be safe online and we work hard to protect them,” Google told TC. “Apps in our Designed for Families program have to comply with strict policies on content, privacy and advertising, and we take action on any policy violations that we find. We take these issues very seriously and continue to work hard to remove any content that is inappropriately aimed at children from our platform.”

Andy Meek
Andy Meek Trending News Reporter

Andy Meek is a reporter who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming. Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.