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Kids Privacy Advocates Renew FTC Complaint Against Google

A child streams content on his phone while wearing headphones.
(Image credit: Cavan Images via Getty Images)

Advocates for a secure and safe online environment for kids have filed a complaint against Google with the Federal Trade Commission seeking an investigation into what they said are app recommendations for kids that don't comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Google counters that it makes protection of children a priority.

The complaint was filed by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), which filed a similar complaint two years ago (December 2018) that did not motivate the Donald Trump FTC to action. They are looking for a better result with the Joe Biden FTC and their message is simple: "Google is certifying as safe and appropriate for children apps that violate COPPA and put children at risk."

Also Read: Privacy Advocates Push FTC for Kids Data Collection Transparency, Oversight

They argued that given the increase in kids' screen time during the pandemic, the need for FTC action is even greater.

They conceded Google has made changes since that initial complaint was filed, but said Google had failed to address the core problems, pointing to studies that found that a "significant" number of Google Play apps collected and shared children's personal information without getting parental consent first, a big no-no in COPPA land.

They also said that websites' Sec. 230 immunity from liability over most third-party content would not shield Google from Sec. 5 liability (false and deceptive) because two prongs of the three part Sec. 230 liability shield test would not be met.

While Google may be an interactive computer service (prong one), the second prong is not met because the content at issue is statements made by Google Play in its parent guide and blog, not developed by another content provider. The third prong of the shield would also not apply, they say, because it is Google's speech being held liable, not a third party's.

"While the FTC has brought a few enforcement actions against developers of children’s apps, its whack-a-mole approach cannot fix the systemic problem that Google Play, the largest source of apps for children, misrepresents children’s apps as complying with COPPA when they do not," the complaint alleged. "Thus, it is important that the FTC conduct a thorough review of Google Play’s practices regarding children’s apps."

Also Read: Groups Seeks FTC Investigation of Child-Directed Digital Marketplace

“Parents reasonably expect that Google Play Store apps designated as ‘Teacher approved’ or appropriate for children under age 13 comply with the law protecting children’s privacy. But far too often, that is not the case," said campaign chair Angela Campbell case. "The FTC failed to act when this problem was brought to its attention over two years ago. Because children today are spending even more time using mobile apps, the FTC must hold Google accountable for violating children’s privacy.”

"The Federal Trade Commission must swiftly act to stop Google’s ongoing disregard of the privacy and well-being of children," added Jeff Chester, executive director of CDD.

“Back in 2018, I sounded the alarm and raised concerns about whether the Google Play store is failing to protecting children’s privacy," Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told Multichannel News. "I’m disturbed, but not surprised, to see new evidence that this is still a problem today."

"Children are spending an unprecedented amount of time on their devices right now, and they shouldn’t be tracked at every turn. I authored the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act because I believe that kids are a uniquely vulnerable population online. Unfortunately, the threats to kids’ privacy and well-being on the internet have increased by orders of magnitude since that legislation was signed into law decades ago, but violators have far too often been let off the hook. That has to stop. It’s time for Big Tech to be held accountable for prioritizing profits over privacy, particularly when it comes to our children.”

“Google Play is committed to providing a positive and safe environment for children and families," the company said in a statement. "Over the last few years, we’ve taken significant steps including updating our Google Play Families and Designed for Families programs with more stringent requirements around ads, content, and personal data and introducing a Kids tab in Google Play filled with “Teacher-approved” apps to help families find quality apps and games for their kids. We will continue to make the protection of children on our platform a priority.” 

A Google spokesperson said that the company has stringent policies for developers and enforcement, as well as promoting quality content, and has made it easier for parents to supervise their children's use of Google play.