Consumer groups accuse Google of marketing inappropriate apps toward children

Twenty-two consumer advocacy groups are accusing Google of marketing apps toward children that are not age-appropriate or that illegally collect their data.

The coalition, led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Center for Digital Democracy, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Wednesday asking it to investigate the Google Play Store’s Kids and Family sections.

“The business model for the Play Store’s Family section benefits advertisers, developers, and Google at the expense of children and parents,” CCFC Executive Director Josh Golin said in a statement. “Google puts its seal of approval on apps that break the law, manipulate kids into watching ads and making purchases, and feature content like kids cleaning their eyes with sharp objects. Given Google’s long history of targeting children with unfair marketing and inappropriate content, including on YouTube, it is imperative that the FTC take swift action.”

The complaint cited research that found that many of the apps featured in the children sections of Google's app store violate the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a 1998 law that requires websites to obtain parental permission before collecting user data on children ages 13 and younger.

Google responded on Wednesday saying it had begun taking action to remove apps flagged by researchers in recent months.

“Parents want their children to be safe online and we work hard to protect them," a Google spokesperson said in a statement. "Apps in our Designed for Families program have to comply with strict policies on content, privacy and advertising, and we take action on any policy violations that we find. We take these issues very seriously and continue to work hard to remove any content that is inappropriately aimed at children from our platform.”

Researchers found examples of ads popping up in children’s game apps for online gambling and games involving alcohol. The complaint also references a review for a children’s app in which an ad for lingerie popped up.

“Google is engaging in deceptive practices in representing that the apps in the Family section of the Play Store comply with COPPA when many do not, that they meet Google’s criteria when they do not, and that they are appropriate for children when they are not,” the complaint reads.

The issues raised in the complaint were also taken up by lawmakers. In a statement, Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallSenate rejects Paul proposal on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats chart course to 'solving the climate crisis' by 2050 | Commerce Department led 'flawed process' on Sharpiegate, watchdog finds | EPA to end policy suspending pollution monitoring by end of summer House Democrats chart course to 'solving the climate crisis' by 2050 MORE (D-N.M.) slammed Google over its “refusal to take responsibility” for children’s privacy and called on the FTC to take action.

Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineOVERNIGHT ENERGY: DOJ whistleblower says California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' | EPA won't defend policy blocking grantees from serving on boards | Minnesota sues Exxon, others over climate change DOJ whistleblower: California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' Hillicon Valley: Apple's developer dispute draws lawmaker scrutiny of App Store | GOP senator blocks bill to expand mail-in and early voting | Twitter flags Trump tweet on protesters for including 'threat of harm' MORE (D-R.I.), who is set to become the chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, has similarly pushed for a crackdown on Google.

“Google’s dominance in the app market cannot come at the expense of its clear legal obligations to protect kids that use its products,” Cicilline said in a statement. 

Updated: 5:11 p.m.