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The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and 21 other child advocacy groups have sent a lengthy letter to the Federal Trade Commission, urging the regulatory body to launch an investigation into Google for inappropriate apps directed at children on the Google Play Store, including some that the groups say violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
Specifically, the complaint alleges that many of the apps in Google Play’s Family section are advertised as safe for children despite the fact that numerous apps within collect, use, or share personal information from children without providing notice to parents, target kids with in-app purchases or advertising, or plainly feature content not appropriate for young audiences.
The complaint, and the advocacy groups’ own research, was prompted by a University of Michigan study that analyzed the advertising content of 135 apps from Google Play’s Ages 5 and Under category. That study found that 95 percent contained some sort of advertising, 54 percent featured disruptive or difficult to close pop-up ads, and that the many popular apps influence children to watch ads or make in-app purchases.
Following that, the advocacy groups conducted their own audit of hundreds of apps to analyze the themes, ad content, and data gathered within each and described its findings as similar to that University of Michigan report.
In addition to COPPA violations, the letter points out several examples of games that contain “dangerous or disturbing” content found in the Play Store’s Family section like Crazy Eye Clinic - Doctor X where “the child is told to pry open the patient’s eyes with clamps and use tweezers to pick out eyelashes” or Ear Doctor Clinic Kids Games which “tells children to use scissors to cut the hair around and inside an infected ear.” Several more examples of games with both ads and content deemed inappropriate for children are named in the full letter.
In all cases, the child advocacy groups say that these apps are approved by Google to be featured in the Family category despite not complying with COPPA or Google’s own policies about advertising and content.
“The Family section of the Play Store has thousands of apps. Parents who want to download apps for their children act reasonably in following Google’s advice to limit their search to the Family section or to look for the family-friendly star,” reads the letter. “Unfortunately, Google’s representations about the apps in the Family section are often false or misleading. As shown above, many apps do not comply with COPPA, engage in prohibited behavioral advertising, show inappropriate ads, use unfair or deceptive marketing practices, and/or show ads or content inappropriate for children. Such misrepresentations violate Section 5 of the FTC Act.”
In a statement offered to Buzzfeed, a Google spokesperson said “we regularly monitor, review and take down apps from Google Play. We’ve removed thousands of apps from [Designed for Families] this year alone when we found a policy violation.”