FTC Should Probe Google Play Store Over Kids' Privacy Violations, Watchdogs Say

Google dupes parents by offering apps that violate children's privacy in the Play Store's “Designed for Family” section, a coalition of watchdogs alleges in a new complaint filed Wednesday with the Federal Trade Commission.

The complaint draws on recent academic studies concerning advertising and privacy in children's apps. One of the studies, "'Won't Somebody Think of the Children?' Examining COPPA Compliance at Scale," conducted by researchers at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 57% of the most popular free children's Android apps may have violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. That law prohibits app developers from knowingly collecting a host of data -- including names, email addresses, device IDs, geolocation information and other "persistent identifiers" -- from children younger than 13 without their parents' consent.

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Another study by researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School found that 95% of free Android apps aimed at children younger than age 6 contained ads, including some that manipulate children into making in-app purchases.

“Parents reasonably expect that an app directed to children would comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act,” the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Center for Digital Democracy, Electronic Privacy Information Center and 19 other groups write in the FTC complaint. “They do not expect that children’s apps will engage in deceptive or unfair advertising practices or include content inappropriate for children.”

Google tells app developers that they must comply with children's privacy laws, including laws prohibiting the use of tracking cookies in apps aimed at young children.

But the organizations say that Google fails to adequately enforce its policies. “Many apps violate COPPA by collecting personal information from children without giving notice to parents and obtaining verifiable parental consent,” the complaint states.

The groups add that some apps promoted as family-friendly use unfair practices, including swaying young children to view ads and make purchases. 

“Google has known about several of these problems for some time, yet has not taken adequate steps to enforce its own criteria for developers,” the watchdogs write. “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.”

Google says it removed thousands of apps from the family section of the Play Store this year, due to policy violations.

A company spokesperson adds: “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.”

The consumer groups aren't the only ones criticizing Google. In October, Senate Democrats also urged the FTC to investigate Google and app developers over reports that many Android apps collect personal information from children.

And in September, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas sued Google and others -- including mobile game developer Tiny Lab Productions and Twitter -- for allegedly violating children's privacy laws. The complaint in that case alleges that Google duped parents by allowing Tiny Lab's gaming apps to participate in Google Play's "Designed for Families" program.

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