Groups File Google Play Complaint With FTC

Almost two dozen consumer and privacy groups are asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google, alleging deceptive marketing of apps for young people and troubling data security practices.

In the complaint filed Wednesday (Dec. 19) with the FTC, the groups say that while Google represents the "family" section of its Google Play Store as safe for children, that is a misrepresentation. It says some of those apps violate federal privacy law, expose kids to inappropriate content and even violate Google's own policies by "manipulating" children into making in-app purchases.

Google policies require apps in the Kids and Family section of its Play Store to be compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)," the groups say, "but, Google doesn’t verify compliance, so Play Store apps for children consistently violate COPPA."

"Google is aware from several recent academic studies that many of the apps in this section are a threat to children’s privacy and well-being, yet it continues to promote them with kid-friendly ratings," they added.

Specifically, they want the FTC to "prohibit Google from including any app in the Family section, or representing that an app is appropriate for children, unless and until it has subjected the app to testing and human review and finds that the app complies with all of the DFF criteria for inclusion in the DFF program, and is consistent with reasonable expectations of parents about what is appropriate for children."

Among the 18 groups signed on to the complaint at press time were the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Center for Digital Democracy, Color of Change, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, and the Parents Television Council.

"As one of the world’s leading providers of content for kids online, Google continues to put the enormous profits they make from kids ahead of any concern for their welfare," said Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy. “It’s time federal and state regulators acted to control Google’s 'wild west' Play Store App activities.”

Various legislators critical of edge provider practices, most recently Senate Intelligence vice chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), have proclaimed the "Wild West" era of social media activity to be over.

"Parents want their children to be safe online and we work hard to protect them," said a Google spokesperson. "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 groups said that many apps "violate the COPPA by collecting personal information from children without giving notice to parents and obtaining verifiable parental consent.

They also said that Google's policies require kids apps to avoid “overly aggressive” commercial tactics, but that many apps "feature ads that interrupt gameplay, are difficult to click out of, or are required to watch in order to advance in a game."

As to its advertising policies, the Google spokesperson said: "[O]ur ad policies prohibit advertisers from collecting personal information from, or serving personalized advertising to, users under 13 or the applicable age in their country."

Google, in a letter last October responding to similar concerns from Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), said that to some extent it must rely on app developers to accurately represent their apps and ensure their compliance, but also says it investigates and takes action when it finds violations—it has taken down thousands of such apps this year alone, according to someone familiar with the process.

“We’re repeatedly confronted with examples of tech companies that are just not doing enough to protect consumer privacy – and I’m particularly concerned about what this failure means for our children,” said Udall of this week's complaint. “When real-world products are dangerous or violate the law, we expect retailers to pull them off the shelves. Google’s refusal to take responsibility for privacy issues in their Play Store allows for app developers to violate COPPA, all while Google cashes in on our children’s activity. It is past time for the Federal Trade Commission to crack down to protect children’s privacy.”

“Google’s dominance in the app market cannot come at the expense of its clear legal obligations to protect kids that use its products.” said Rep. Democrat David Cicilline of Rhode Island, a leading member of the House Antitrust Subcommittee. Cicciline raised the issue at an FTC oversight hearing. “I am pleased that this coalition of consumer and children’s advocacy groups are urging the FTC to scrutinize whether Google is improperly tracking children and selling their data.”

Many of the groups filing this week's complaint against Google at the FTC are among those who pressed the FTC last month about the status of a previous complaint they filed against Google, this one about YouTube as an online platform for kids from which the company profits while Google asserts the site is not for kids and thus doesn't have to be COPPA-compliant.

In that April complaint, the groups were seeking potentially 10 of billions of dollars in fines for what they say has been the company’s collection and sharing of children’s information in violation of federal law.

The groups are represented in the complaint by the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.