This week I’d like to try to shed some light on three issues that game developers who have children as part of their audience must understand. The impetus for this post is last week’s dustup between online retailer, app store, (and soon to be smartphone manufacturer) Amazon and the US Federal Trade Commission.
The issue between Amazon and the FTC is that the FTC has determined that Amazon’s app store has not done enough to stop children from downloading large quantities of virtual goods or paid apps after being given a password by their parents. After I received numerous calls and emails asking me if Amazon vs. FTC was about COPPA (it isn’t), I decided to do this post.
The Amazon issue is exactly the same issue that generated the $32 million refund issued by Apple to parents in January. Readers of this blog will remember my post at the time, showing that the fine was not about COPPA or even privacy. It was about what the FTC calls “unfair business practices”. As an additional response to the FTC, at WWDC, Apple announced “Family Sharing” and “Ask to Buy” features for parents with iOS-toting kids.
As game developers who may have children in our audience, we need to be aware of these three separate, but closely related “live rails” that can cause big problems if not handled correctly in your game. The issues are:
Content – What is going on inside the storyline of your game? Is it gory, with realistic violence? Is there an explicit or implied adult theme? Do the ad networks your game uses know you have a kid-focused game and filter their ads properly?
Commerce – How is your game monetized? Do you have IAP? How is the IAP integrated into the game? If you have ads, are the ad networks you use “kid friendly”?
Privacy – What information does your game collect from the player (who may or may not be under 13)? Are the ad networks you use “privacy friendly”? Do you get the parent’s permission prior to capturing anything from a child under 13? (This is how you comply with COPPA).
Here’s where it gets confusing. The three issues are related, but each has a different master. And they all inter-relate.
Game content is not regulated by the government. There are industry groups who have attempted to create ratings systems for mobile apps such as non-profits ESRB and Moms With Apps. You know what content is built into your game, but you aren’t always in control. To a parent, the content of an ad delivered in a kids’ game is no different from the game itself, yet you the developer have almost no ability to control the ads delivered to your game. If your game has a chat feature, the offensive and inappropriate content that comes from other players is just as much of an issue.
General commerce practices are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission. The Amazon and Apple FTC actions were about the “unfair and deceptive commerce” methods used by the app stores that allowed children to go on buying sprees after getting a single parental password entered.
Privacy protection for children is also regulated by the Federal Trade Commission. In the case of games that are used by children, the COPPA law was created in 2000 and then modified in 2013 to protect the privacy of children.
So let’s recap: the recent Amazon-FTC issue is not a privacy/COPPA issue, it’s about commerce. The Center for Digital Democracy’s complaint about Nickelodeon’s Sponge Bob app was a COPPA issue, but so far the FTC has not issued any public response or action against Nickelodeon. I’m not aware of any ongoing legal activity surrounding child-friendly content on mobile apps, but I feel that it is coming.
If you'd like to educate yourself on COPPA2, here's a page of history and links AgeCheq has created for game developers. To learn more about COPPA directly from The Federal Trade Commission, check out this list of answers to frequently asked questions: http://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/complying-coppa-frequently-asked-questions . Because there are numerous “incomplete” versions on the web, I encourage you to always view the final, official text of the COPPA law, which can be found here: