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Groups urge FTC to investigate if Google promotes apps violating children's privacy law

Groups urge FTC to investigate if Google promotes apps violating children's privacy law
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Two tech advocacy groups are urging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate if Google is promoting apps in its Play Store that they allege violate a children’s privacy law by collecting personal data without parental consent. 

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) filed a complaint with the FTC Wednesday alleging Google is certifying apps for children as safe and appropriate that violate the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). 

“We urge the FTC to investigate Google’s practices and the truthfulness of its representations and act to protect parents from being misled and children from playing apps that are not appropriate and violate their privacy,” the groups wrote in the complaint. 

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The complaint cites three recent studies, as well as observations the groups made in preparing the complaint, that found child-directed apps in the Google Play store are “continuing to transmit personal information to third parties without obtaining parental consent.” 

A Google spokesperson defended the company’s handling of apps directed to children in response to the complaint. 

“Google Play is committed to providing a positive and safe environment for children and families,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Over the last few years, we’ve taken significant steps including updating our Google Play Families and Designed for Families programs with more stringent requirements around ads, content, and personal data and introducing a Kids tab in Google Play filled with ‘Teacher-approved’ apps to help families find quality apps and games for their kids. We will continue to make the protection of children on our platform a priority.”

The groups acknowledged that Google has changed how it treats apps intended for children since they filed a complaint in 2018 over similar concerns. But they said the company has not fixed the alleged violations of COPPA. 

“The FTC failed to act when this problem was brought to its attention over two years ago. Because children today are spending even more time using mobile apps, the FTC must hold Google accountable for violating children’s privacy,” Angela Campbell, chair of the board of directors of CCFC, said in a statement. 

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The concerns are amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, which has increased the use and dependence on apps among children, the complaint states. 

The complaint also targets Google’s newly created “Teacher approved” badge, which launched last April in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The badge indicates the app meets a higher quality standard, but apps with the badge were identified in the studies as collecting personal data without consent, according to the complaint. 

“For too long, the Commission has allowed Google’s app store, and the data marketing practices that are its foundation, to operate without enforcing the federal law that is designed to protect young people under 13. With children using apps more than ever as a consequence of the pandemic, the FTC should enforce the law and ensure Google engages with kids and families in a responsible manner,” Jeff Chester, executive director of the CDD, said in a statement. 

The complaint adds to the growing scrutiny against Google over its content moderation practices, as well as its market power.