Con­sumer groups ac­cuse Face­book of dup­ing chil­dren

The Tribune (SLO) - - News - BY CECILIA KANG

WASH­ING­TON

More than a dozen chil­dren’s ad­vo­cacy groups on Thurs­day ac­cused Face­book of know­ingly de­ceiv­ing chil­dren into rack­ing up fees from games on its so­cial net­work, the lat­est in a string of com­plaints against the com­pany sent to fed­eral reg­u­la­tors.

The groups called on the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion to in­ves­ti­gate whether Face­book vi­o­lated con­sumer pro­tec­tion and child pri­vacy laws by dup­ing chil­dren into mak­ing in-app pur­chases in games like An­gry Birds, PetVille and Ninja Saga, and then mak­ing it nearly im­pos­si­ble for chil­dren or their par­ents to seek re­funds. The ac­cu­sa­tion stems from a 2012 law­suit.

The com­plaint, filed by 17 groups in­clud­ing Com­mon Sense Me­dia, Cam­paign for a Com­mer­cial Free Child­hood and the Cen­ter for Dig­i­tal Democ­racy, says the pur­chases were of­ten done with­out a par­ent’s per­mis­sion. In some cases, they amounted to hun­dreds or thou­sands of dol­lars.

“Face­book’s ex­ploita­tive prac­tices tar­geted a population uni­ver­sally rec­og­nized as vul­ner­a­ble – young peo­ple,” the groups said in the com­plaint.

In Wash­ing­ton’s greater fo­cus on the power of Big Tech, Face­book has taken cen­ter stage. The so­cial net­work’s role in state­spon­sored elec­tion in­ter- fer­ence, harm­ful con­tent and pri­vacy vi­o­la­tions has set off a push for new pri­vacy laws and mul­ti­ple in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the com­pany. Next week, Congress will de­bate pro­pos­als for a fed­eral pri­vacy law.

The FTC started in­ves­ti­gat­ing Face­book in March after The New York Times re­ported that the data of tens of mil­lions of Face­book users was un­know­ingly shared with the po­lit­i­cal con­sult­ing firm Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica. The agency is in the fi­nal stages of that in­ves­ti­ga­tion, with staff mem­bers and Face­book ne­go­ti­at­ing over a po­ten­tial set­tle­ment that could in­clude a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar fine and new re­straints on the com­pany’s busi­ness prac­tices, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the talks.

The con­sumer groups do not be­lieve the com­plaint will be in­cluded in the FTC’s pri­vacy in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Face­book be­cause that case ap­pears to be near­ing its com­ple­tion.

But the chil­dren’s ad­vo­cacy groups said they hoped their com­plaint would con­tinue a drum­beat of pres­sure for Face­book to take more force­ful steps to change its busi­ness prac­tices ori­ented to­ward chil­dren.

“This is a pat­tern of be­hav­ior,” said James Steyer, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Com­mon Sense Me­dia. “Face­book has a mo­ral obli­ga­tion to change its cul­ture to­wards prac­tices that foster the well-be­ing of kids and fam­i­lies, and the FTC should en­sure Face­book is acting re­spon­si­bly.”

In a state­ment, Face­book said that in 2016 it had up­dated some of its poli­cies gov­ern­ing pur­chases by mi­nors.

“We have in place mech­a­nisms to pre­vent fraud at the time of pur­chase, and we of­fer peo­ple the op­tion to dis­pute pur­chases and seek re­funds,” the state­ment said. “As part of our long his­tory of work­ing with par­ents and ex­perts to of­fer tools for fam­i­lies nav­i­gat­ing Face­book and the web, Face­book also has safe­guards in place re­gard­ing mi­nors’ pur­chases.”

The FTC de­clined to com­ment.

De­tails about the in-app pur­chases came from court doc­u­ments that were un­sealed at the re­quest of the Cen­ter for In­ves­tiga­tive Reporting, a non­profit jour­nal­ism or­ga­ni­za­tion. The doc­u­ments were part of a clas­s­ac­tion law­suit brought in 2012 and set­tled in 2016 for an undis­closed sum.

The 135 pages of un­sealed doc­u­ments in­cluded in­ter­nal cor­po­rate memos and emails in which Face­book em­ploy­ees en­cour­aged game devel­op­ers to cre­ate fea­tures that would get chil­dren to make credit card charges while play­ing games.

The FTC po­lices con­sumer fraud, de­cep­tion and un­fair prac­tices and is well versed in the is­sue of in-app pur­chases – the charges made within an app and di­rectly charged through iTunes or Google Play.

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