Privacy watchdog group calls on FTC to investigate 'SpongeBob' mobile app

CDD says the app also doesn't provide a description of the personal information it collects, or how it uses that information.

“It is disturbing to learn that a well-known children’s brand such as Nickelodeon is flouting basic privacy protections for children," Laura Moy, an attorney at Georgetown Law's Institute for Public Representation, said in a statement. "Even more troubling, Nickelodeon tells parents that it complies with the law protecting children’s privacy when it does not”

Moy prepared the complaint on behalf of CDD.

A Nickelodeon spokesman said the company has "temporarily have taken down the app while we investigate their complaint." The company first heard about CDD's claims via press reports.

San Francisco-based PlayFirst could not be reached for comment on CDD's claims.

The aim of the "SpongeBob" game is for kids to help the popular cartoon character quickly serve customers in the "Bikini Bottom" restaurants from the show. The game can be downloaded for free, but players can purchase virtual coins within the game that buy items that help SpongeBob serve customers faster.

Last week CDD filed a complaint against another game app targeted toward kids, called "Mobbles," for violating COPPA rules.

In its complaint against the "SpongeBob" game, CDD urged the FTC to step up its enforcement of COPPA against mobile app developers and to update the child privacy rules so they're relevant in an age where smartphone and tablet use is on the rise.

The FTC is expected to unveil its updates to COPPA in the coming days. The revised rules would expand COPPA's scope to cover apps, games, ad networks and other online entities. Google, Facebook and other major companies have pushed back against some of the proposed changes.

As a precursor to its release of the updated privacy rules, the FTC published a study this month that said hundreds of mobile apps for kids are collecting and sharing their personal information. The agency found that many of the apps collected this information without proper disclosure.

This post was updated at 10:04 a.m.