New Mexico AG Presses Claims Against Google

New Mexico's top law enforcement official is pressing to proceed with a lawsuit accusing Google of violating federal and state laws by placing apps developed by Tiny Lab Productions -- which allegedly collect data from children -- in the “Designed for Families” program.

“Google knowingly made misleading representations to parents who browsed the Family section," New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas argues in papers filed Tuesday with the federal district court in Albuquerque. “Specifically, Google represented that the Tiny Lab Apps were suitable for play by children -- despite knowing that the Tiny Lab Apps unlawfully collect children’s personal information.”

The dispute between Google and the New Mexico Attorney General dates to last September, when Balderas sued Tiny Lab Productions, Google, Twitter and other tech companies for allegedly violating state and federal laws, including the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. That law prohibits app developers and website operators from knowingly collecting 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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The complaint alleges that the Lithuania-based Tiny Lab gleans personal data from young users who download games like "Fun Kid Racing," and that Google's AdMob, Twitter's MoPub, and other tech companies facilitate the data transfers.

Balderas also alleges that Google violated a state consumer protection law by duping parents into thinking Tiny Lab's apps were appropriate for children, despite being told by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley that the apps collected personal data.

Google -- which removed Tiny Lab apps from the Play Store last year -- recently asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed at an early stage. The company contends in a motion filed earlier this year that it isn't responsible for any violations of the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act by Tiny Lab. 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.

“Google Play is merely a platform for the sale or distribution of apps and the Federal Trade Commission -- the agency charged with rulemaking and enforcement under COPPA -- has made clear that COPPA does not apply to such platforms,” the company wrote. Google added that its Play platform wasn't alleged to have collected data from children through any Tiny Lab apps.

Google separately argued that its mobile ad network AdMob was entitled to rely on Tiny Lab's representations that its apps weren't directed at children.

Balderas is now asking U.S. District Court Judge Martha Vazquez to reject Google's arguments and allow the case to continue.

“The state’s complaint provides detailed allegations demonstrating that Google had actual knowledge that the Tiny Lab Apps were child-directed and that children were playing them, and that Google used that knowledge for commercial exploitation,” Balderas argues in papers filed Tuesday.

Balderas refers in his legal papers to a report published last year by Berkeley's International Computer Science Institute, which found that many free children's apps may have violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

“The researchers presented Google with a case study of 84 of the Tiny Lab apps, with 75 million downloads worldwide, as an object lesson in COPPA-violative behavior,” Balderas says in his new legal papers. Last year, Google allegedly responded to the researchers by stating that the apps didn't violate the law.

“Google chose to do nothing to prevent the illegal collection and use of children’s personal information for targeted advertising in child-directed apps,” Balderas writes.

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