CON­SUMER GROUPS AL­LEGE GOOGLE MIS­LEADS KIDS IN FTC COM­PLAINT

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Nearly two dozen con­sumer, pri­vacy and pub­lic health groups are urg­ing U.S. reg­u­la­tors to in­ves­ti­gate whether chil­dren are be­ing en­dan­gered by de­cep­tive apps in Google’s app store for smart­phones run­ning on its An­droid soft­ware.

The 102-page com­plaint filed Wednes­day with the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion al­leges Google’s Play store is harm­ing kids by al­low­ing apps that break pri­vacy laws, con­tain adult con­tent or in­clude ma­nip­u­la­tive ad­ver­tis­ing in a sec­tion of its Play store de­signed for chil­dren.

The call for FTC ac­tion is be­ing led by two groups, the Cam­paign for a Com­mer­cial-Free Child­hood and the Cen­ter for Dig­i­tal Democ­racy, that have pre­vi­ously at­tacked Google’s ap­proach to kids. In April, they asked the FTC to crack down on Google’s YouTube video site for al­leged vi­o­la­tions of chil­dren’s on­line pri­vacy.

Twenty other groups, in­clud­ing Con­sumer Ac­tion, Pub­lic Ci­ti­zen and the U.S. Pub­lic In­ter­est Re­search Group, joined in the lat­est com­plaint.

Google is­sued a state­ment em­pha­siz­ing its com­mit­ment to pro­tect­ing chil­dren while they are on­line — one of the rea­sons the com­pany says it pro­hibits tar­geted ad­ver­tis­ing at chil­dren un­der 13.

“We take these is­sues very se­ri­ously and con­tinue to work hard to re­move any con­tent that is in­ap­pro­pri­ately aimed at chil­dren from our plat­form,” Google said.

More than 2 bil­lion de­vices world­wide are pow­ered by Google soft­ware, with a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of those be­ing used by mi­nors. The com­plaint fo­cuses on al­leged mis­con­duct un­der U.S. laws and reg­u­la­tions.

The at­tempt to pres­sure the FTC to open an in­ves­ti­ga­tion comes amid an in­ten­si­fy­ing back­lash against Google, Face­book and other com­pa­nies that make most of their money by us­ing their free ser­vices to track peo­ple’s in­ter­ests and where­abouts and then min­ing that in­for­ma­tion to sell ads tar­geted at them.

The angst has raised the specter of Congress draw­ing up tougher reg­u­la­tions to curb the tech in­dus­try’s power and re­strict its abil­ity to com­pile dig­i­tal dossiers about the peo­ple who have be­come in­creas­ingly de­pen­dent on its ser­vices.

Rep. David Ci­cilline, a Demo­crat from Rhode Is­land who has been crit­i­cal of Google, is­sued a state­ment sup­port­ing the groups seek­ing an FTC in­ves­ti­ga­tion as did Sen. Tom Udall, a Demo­crat from New Mex­ico.

“It is past time for the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion to crack down to pro­tect chil­dren’s pri­vacy,” Udall said in a state­ment.

Although the FTC doesn’t typ­i­cally com­ment on whether it will in­ves­ti­gate is­sues raised in com­plaints, it has pun­ished both Google and Ap­ple for what it deemed to be child ex­ploita­tion in the past.

In 2014, it reached a set­tle­ment re­quir­ing Google to re­fund $19 mil­lion for al­low­ing apps dis­trib­uted through its store to charge chil­dren for pur­chases made with­out par­ents’ con­sent. That came af­ter a sim­i­lar agree­ment re­quired Ap­ple to re­fund $32.5 mil­lion for in-app pur­chases made on iPhones, iPads and other de­vices with­out par­ents’ per­mis­sion.

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