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Children’s Advocacy Groups Ask FTC to Investigate Facebook

— February 22, 2019

Facing down a multi-billion fine from the F.T.C., Facebook is now being hounded by children’s advocates, who say the social media behemoth tricked kids into spending big money on games like Angry Birds and PetVille.

A collection of more than a dozen children’s advocacy groups are the latest to accuse Facebook of intentionally deceiving young users into spending big money on games.

The groups, reports the New York Times, are asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate and determine whether Facebook violated consumer protection and child privacy laws.

At issue are in-game microtransactions, which require credit card payments in exchange for virtual items, extra lives or other digital enhancements. Children would later be prompted to authorize similar transactions for more benefits.

Popular games like Angry Birds, PetVille and Ninja Saga purportedly all partook in the deception, making it difficult for parents to get refunds after discovering the charges.

Advocates have been locked in litigation with Facebook and its affiliates since 2012.

That complaint, notes the Times, was filed by an alliance of 17 groups, including Common Sense Media, Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy. They claim that some children were able to authorize, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges without their parents’ permission.

Rather than telling children they were making payments, many Facebook applications took advantage of their financial illiteracy by asking them to restock on in-game currency. Instead of being shown a dollar amount or Visa symbol, games like Ninja Saga allegedly showed virtual coins being replenished at the click of a button, with each click accompanied by a sound effect and invisible credit card charge. Image via Wikimedia Commons/user:uthor Loadmaster (David R. Tribble). (CCA-BY-2.0).

“Facebook’s exploitative practices targeted a population universally recognized as vulnerable—young people,” the groups wrote.

Calls for an F.T.C. investigation only compound Facebook’s legal wounds. The company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is purportedly in talks with the agency over its lackluster privacy safeguards. Following the theft and misuse of millions of users’ personal information by Cambridge Analytica, Facebook may have to pay billions of dollars in fines.

Children’s advocates want the Federal Trade Communication to look into allegations of deception separately, since the other complaint is nearing its resolution. More than anything, they want Facebook to change its business practices toward youth.

“This is a pattern of behavior,” said Common Sense Media 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 F.T.C. should ensure Facebook is acting responsibly.”

Facebook, for its part, said it updated its terms of services regulating purchases by minors in 2016.

“We have in place mechanisms to prevent fraud at the time of purchase, and we offer people the option to dispute purchases and seek refunds,” Facebook said in a statement. “As part of our long history of working with parents and experts to offer tools for families navigating Facebook and the web, Facebook also has safeguards in place regarding minors’ purchases.”

But the lawsuit revealed hundreds of pages of internal corporate communications, memos and e-mails. In them, Facebook employees encouraged game developers to incorporate mechanisms that could get children to spend real money.

In many cases, notes the Times, children didn’t realize their parents’ credit cards were associated with the account or that they were even spending real money.


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