Consumer groups file complaint against Google over kids’ apps

19 Dec 2018

Image: © Tomasz Zajda/

A number of groups have called on the FTC in the US to investigate how Google manages apps geared towards children.

A coalition of 22 consumer and public health advocacy groups led by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) has called on the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate Google regarding what the coalition describes as “deceptive marketing of apps for young children”. This has been an ongoing campaign that has gathered pace in recent months.

The complaint filed today (19 December) claims that certain apps in the Family section of Google’s Play Store often violate US federal children’s privacy law, expose children to inappropriate content, and manipulate children into viewing ads and making in-app purchases.

Advocates call on FTC to take action

According to the advocacy groups, many apps in the Family section are flouting Google’s own policies. CCFC’s executive director, Josh Golin, said: “The business model for the Play Store’s Family section benefits advertisers, developers, and Google at the expense of children and parents.

“Google puts its seal of approval on apps that break the law, manipulate kids into watching ads and making purchases, and feature content like kids cleaning their eyes with sharp objects.

“Given Google’s long history of targeting children with unfair marketing and inappropriate content, including on YouTube, it is imperative that the FTC take swift action.”

Violations still abound

To be available in the Kids and Family section of the Google Play Store, apps need to be compliant with the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). According to the complaint, the tech giant does not verify compliance, and many apps consistently violate COPPA’s rules. The complaint read: “Many apps send children’s data unencrypted, while others access children’s locations or transmit persistent identifiers without notice or verifiable parental consent.

“Google has known about these COPPA violations since at least July 2017, when they were publicly reported by Serge Egelman, a researcher at the University of California Berkeley Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity.”

Egelman said: “Given Google’s assertion that Designed for Families apps must be COPPA-compliant, it’s disappointing these violations still abound, even after Google was alerted to the scale of the problem.”

Inappropriate content

Guidelines also require apps aimed at children to avoid “overly aggressive” commercial tactics, but the FTC complaint reveals that many popular apps feature ads that interrupt gameplay, are required viewing to advance gameplay, or are hard to click out of. Other ads show characters crying if children do not buy locked items, while some include sexualised images and ads for alcohol and gambling.

“Parents who download apps recommended for ages eight and under don’t expect their child to see ads which promote gambling, alcoholic beverages or violent video games,” said Angela Campbell, director of the communications and technology clinic at Georgetown Law, which drafted the complaint.

“But Google falsely claims that apps listed in the Family section only have ads which are appropriate for children. It’s important for the FTC to act quickly to protect children, especially in light of Google’s dominance in the app market.”

Jeff Chester, executive director of the CCD, added: “Google (Alphabet Inc) has long engaged in unethical and harmful business practices, especially when it comes to children. And the Federal Trade Commission has for too long ignored this problem, placing both children and their parents at risk over their loss of privacy, and exposing them to a powerful and manipulative marketing apparatus.

“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.”

US senator Tom Udall said: “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.”

Google responds

In response to the complaint, a Google spokesperson said: “Parents want their children to be safe online and we work hard to protect them. Apps in our Designed for Families programme 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.”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects