A coalition of 22 consumer and health advocacy groups are calling on the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate apps they say are using deceptive practices to get kids to watch ads and make in-app purchases.
The call for action follows a recent study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics by researchers at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital who examined the type and content of advertising in 135 children’s apps. Entitled Advertising in Young Children’s Apps, the study found that: apps were forcing kids to watch ads or make in-app purchases in order to advance in the game; ads were disguised as game play; apps were marketed as “free” but required additional purchases in order to play; and beloved characters were urging kids to make in-app purchases.
These practices have been deemed “unfair and deceptive to children and parents” by the 22 groups, and all of them are urging the FTC to take action in a letter drafted by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), with assistance from the Communications & Technology Law Clinic in the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center.
The following groups have added their signatures to the letter: Consumer Watchdog, Badass Teachers Association, Centre for Child Honouring, Color of Change, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Corporate Accountability, Defending the Early Years, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Media Education Foundation, New Dream, Open MIC (Open Media and Information Companies Initiative), Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, Parents Across America, Parents Television Council, Peace Educators Allied for Children Everywhere (P.E.A.C.E.), Public Citizen, the Story of Stuff, TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Childhood Entertainment) and USPIRG.
This unified call for action follows several FTC rulings against tech companies, including a 2016 decision that Amazon was billing parents for in-app purchases made by children without the account holders’ consent—in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive commercial practices. Apple reached a settlement with the FTC over a similar complaint about in-app purchases, to the tune of at least US$32.5 million in consumer refunds.
Earlier this year, the European Union rolled out GDPR—a new set of data protection and privacy regulations demanding that all apps and online activities targeted at children must exist within an zero-data environment or restrict children’s access to the content. The idea of a zero-data environment was started in the US by the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act, which was introduced in 2000 and updated in 2013.