Consumer groups allege Google misleads children in FTC complaint

A group of consumer advocacy, privacy and public health groups urged U.S. regulators to probe whether children are being endangered by deceptive apps in Google’s Play app store for smartphones using the Android operating system.

The complaint filed Wednesday alleges Google’s Play store is harming kids by allowing apps that break privacy laws, contain adult content or include manipulative advertising.

The call for Federal Trade Commission (FTC) action is being led by two groups, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy, both of which have previously attacked Google’s approach to kids. Twenty other groups also joined in the latest complaint.

Google issued a statement emphasizing its commitment to protecting children while they are online — one of the reasons the company says it prohibits targeted advertising at children under 13.

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

More than 2 billion devices worldwide are powered by Google software, with a significant number of those being used by minors. The complaint focuses on alleged misconduct under U.S. laws and regulations.

The attempt to pressure the FTC to open an investigation comes amid an intensifying backlash against Google, Facebook and other companies that make most of their money by using their free services to track people’s interests and whereabouts and then mining that information to sell ads targeted at them.

Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island who has been critical of Google, issued a statement supporting the groups seeking an FTC investigation, as did Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico.

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“It is past time for the Federal Trade Commission to crack down to protect children’s privacy,” Udall said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.

Although the FTC doesn’t typically comment on whether it will investigate issues raised in complaints, it has punished Google for what it deemed to be child exploitation in the past.

In 2014, it reached a settlement requiring Google to refund $19 million for allowing apps distributed through its store to charge children for purchases made without parents’ consent.