Facebook Hit with FTC Complaint on Children’s In-App Buys

Seventeen groups, including Common Sense Media, Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, claiming that Facebook has deliberately duped children into making in-app purchases on games including “Angry Birds,” “PetVille” and “Ninja Saga.” The purchases were often made without parental permission, and Facebook makes it “nearly impossible” for parents seeking refunds. The accusation originates in a 2012 class-action lawsuit.

The New York Times reports that these in-app purchases sometimes “amounted to hundreds or thousands of dollars.” “This is a pattern of behavior,” said Common Sense Media chief executive James Steyer. “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.”

Facebook said that in 2016 it updated policies to create “mechanisms to prevent fraud at the time of purchase, and … offer people the option to dispute purchases and seek refunds,” insisting that it had “safeguards in place regarding minors’ purchases.”

The Center for Investigative Reporting obtained documents from the 2012 lawsuit, and the 135 pages “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.” In 2013, the FTC investigated in-app purchases by minors, reaching a settlement with Apple for $32.5 million and another with Google for $19 million.

The Los Angeles Times reports on another misstep by Facebook: allowing advertisers to target hundreds of thousands of users curious about Nazis, fascists and neo-Nazi music. “Most of these targeting options are against our policies and should have been caught and removed sooner,” admitted Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne.

LAT tested the system and found that Facebook allowed them to target ads to users that Facebook determined are interested in prominent Nazis Goebbels, Himmler and Mengele, with each category including “hundreds of thousands of users.” Facebook also approved an ad “targeted to fans of Skrewdriver, a notorious white supremacist punk band.” In 24 hours, the ads were seen by 4,153 users; LAT paid only $25.

Similarly, in 2017, ProPublica “found that the company sold ads based on any user-generated phrase, including ‘Jew hater’ and ‘Hitler did nothing wrong’.” Even after the 2018 murder of 11 members of a synagogue in Pittsburgh by an anti-Semite, “Facebook gave advertisers the ability to target users interested in the anti-Semitic ‘white genocide conspiracy theory’, which the suspected killer cited as inspiration before the attacks.”

Reuters reported on Facebook’s “new effort to bring outside experts into its content review process.” In two days time, “38 academics, non-profit officials and others from 15 Asian countries” worked on how an “external oversight board” for content decisions might work. The meeting, one of half-a-dozen planned for cities around the world, recommended that, “the new board must be empowered to weigh in not only on specific cases, but on the policies and processes behind them.” At the meeting, attendees “worked through issues such as how the board would be chosen and how it would select cases.” Hate speech was also “a big focus of discussion.”