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Google’s Marketing of Children’s Apps Misleads Parents, Consumer Groups Say

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A group of 22 children’s and consumer organizations is calling for a federal investigation into Google’s marketing of children’s apps in its Google Play store, just the latest in a series of rebukes by experts about how the company handles technology aimed at youngsters.

Google has promoted the “Family” section of its Play store as a place where parents can find age-appropriate apps for children. But in a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission filed on Wednesday, the advocacy groups said the company’s endorsement of the apps was misleading. The groups said that some apps in that section contained content unsuitable for children, showed ads for casino games for adults or pushed youngsters into watching video ads and making in-app purchases.

The groups also said some apps appeared to violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a federal law that prohibits sites and apps for children from collecting phone numbers, precise location, photographs, persistent tracking identifiers and other personal information from children under 13 without verifiable consent from a parent. The complaint cited an investigation by The New York Times in September that found some children’s apps collected precise location information and tracking identifiers without verifiable parental permission.

Google has come under mounting scrutiny for its promotion of children’s apps in its Play store. In April, cybersecurity researchers reported that more than half of about 6,000 free Android children’s apps they tested shared personal data in ways that may violate the children’s privacy law. In September, the attorney general of New Mexico filed a lawsuit against Google and other companies over children’s apps. The complaint said that Google had violated a state law on unfair practices by marketing certain children’s apps as family-friendly even when the company knew the apps failed to comply with its own policies on children’s apps.

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In an app called New Girl in High School for children ages 6-12, researchers found an ad for a game involving beer, the complaint said.CreditBrent Lewis for The New York Times
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Beer in the ads for New Girl at School.CreditBrent Lewis for The New York Times

In early October, two Democratic senators called for a federal investigation to examine how app stores like Google Play vet the apps they categorize as child-friendly and ensure they comply with the privacy law. And on Wednesday morning those senators — Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Ed Markey of Massachusetts — along with Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, sent another letter to the chairman of the F.T.C. pressing for “a comprehensive investigation into the Google Play store and its compliance” with children’s privacy and advertising rules.

“There are massive, at-scale problems with Android apps for children,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a children’s advocacy group in Boston that led the latest complaint along with the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit in Washington. “Google is failing to do the proper vetting of apps in the family section,” he said.

Google said that it removed thousands of apps from its Designed for Families program this year when it found policy violations, and had begun to take action on the apps cited in the consumer groups’ complaint.

“Parents want their children to be safe online, and we work hard to protect them,” said Aaron Stein, a Google spokesman. “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.”

A few years ago, Google introduced Designed for Families, a program that enables developers of Android apps to “showcase trusted, high-quality and age-appropriate content for the whole family.” To be eligible for the program, Google says developers must meet criteria like ensuring that their apps comply with the federal privacy law and contain age-appropriate content and ads for children.

But the groups’ complaint and the New Mexico attorney general’s lawsuit argue that Google misled consumers by promoting the apps as trustworthy while failing to enforce its own requirements for the Designed for Families program.

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In their testing, the consumer groups found ads for casino games in a children’s app called Dentist Games for Kids, labeled as for children age 8 and under.CreditBrent Lewis for The New York Times

Among other criticisms, the complaint says that Dentist Games for Kids, an app for children 8 and under in the Play store, showed ads for adult casino games with names like Blackjack 21: Blackjackist and Double Wins Slots — Free Vegas Casino. It also says some apps include risky or inappropriate content, citing Ear Doctor Clinic Kids Games, an app that “tells children to use scissors to cut the hair around and inside an infected ear,” the complaint said. (On Wednesday morning, the app was not available in the Play store.)

The Times had similar findings when testing several children’s apps in the Play store this week. One app, Smart Games for Kids for Free, a free animated game for children 8 and under that has been downloaded more than a million times, asked for access to a player’s smartphone photos, media, files and location without seeking parental permission.

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The complaint says an app called Ear Doctor Clinic Kids Games included inappropriate content that “tells children to use scissors to cut the hair around and inside an infected ear.”CreditBrent Lewis for The New York Times

The app also showed ads for casino games, “cheap international calling” and the Spotify streaming music service, which does not allow children under 13 to have accounts. It also nearly continuously displayed an ad for in-app purchases.

Devgame Kids, a developer in Estonia that is behind the children’s app, did not immediately return an email seeking comment

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

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