Members of Congress sent a letter to Google in September demanding answers over YouTube’s data collection practices and whether they violate the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA), but now senators fear the company’s Google Play store is also violating COPPA.
Just last week, Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requesting an investigation of the Google Play app store.
Blumenthal, Markey and Udall cite research conducted by the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) in their letter to the FTC, suggesting Google may be promoting apps in the Google Play store that “may share children’s personal data, include content or advertising not appropriate for children, or fail to implement reasonable security practices in accordance with COPPA.”
Because the FTC is responsible for enforcing COPPA, the senators urge the commission to quickly and thoroughly investigate the Google Play store.
As more and more children play games and use apps on their parents’ or their own smartphones — statistics say one in four children under age six has his or her own smartphone — regulators fear tech companies are compromising children’s safety and privacy in order to provide better games and apps.
“Multiple apps designed for children to use with toys such as Elmo and Furby in the Google Play Family section share users’ persistent identifiers with third parties in an unencrypted form,” the senators wrote.
So not only is Google sharing children’s personal data with third parties — like game or app developers or retailers — but Google also isn’t encrypting the data, which means unauthorized parties could intercept and steal the data.
The Google Play Family section also targets children with advertising not suitable for children, according to the letter.
“Some of these children’s apps portray activities that could frighten children or result in harm if imitated by children,” the senators wrote. “In addition, advertisements referencing alcohol, video games designed for adults and gambling, for example, all appear in apps Google characterizes as appropriate for children.”
This is where it gets complicated: the Google Play store may list an app as “family friendly — like a Thomas & Friends game — but also mark it with a disclaimer that some ads may appear in the game. Google supposedly doesn’t control those ads, even if they’re decidedly inappropriate for children.
This, the senators and the CCFC and CDD claim, constitutes unfair and deceptive marketing.
Furthermore, they argue, 84 apps on the Google Play store share children’s personal data without parental consent or even giving parents the option to consent, and many children’s apps track the user without parental consent.
The letter is in line with current regulatory sentiment towards tech giants: not only are representatives and senators criticizing them for how they interact with children, but attorneys general are as well, and some tech companies could cough up millions before the issues over COPPA are resolved.
Google has showed willingness to cooperate when malicious activity is involved with its Google Play store. A few weeks ago, the tech giant pulled 22 apps from the Google Play store that included fraudulent ads and “back doors” allowing hackers into a user’s phone.
The senators requested a written response from the FTC to their letter by Jan. 8, 2019.