A lead Apple lawyer formally requested that the Federal Trade Commission investigate Google for its in-app purchase policies in the Android mobile OS. The complaint alleges that Google allows children to continue making these purchases long after parental oversight has ended, exactly the crime for which Apple was previously punished.
Apple's letter to the FTC was obtained by Politico using a Freedom of Information Act request. In it, Apple general counsel Bruce Sewell tells FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and Democratic Commissioner Julie Brill about a January 2014 report about Google's lax in-app purchases policies. "I thought this article might be of some interest, particularly if you have not already seen it," the helpful Mr. Sewell writes. Google lets children "spend like a drunken sailor," he added.
Yes, he really wrote that.
At issue is a 30-minute window that occurs after a parent OK's an in-app purchase for a child using an Android device. During this window, the child can continue making in-app purchases without the app requesting the parental password again. This is precisely the kind of behavior that landed Apple in trouble with the FTC, in a case that dates back to 2011.
Indeed, I was a trailblazer of sorts with this technology, and I wrote about my experiences with Apple's then-new in-app purchasing capabilities back in 2010 in the article So Easy Even a Child Can Do It. At the time, my children had managed to rack up almost $1000 in purchases that they thought were pretend, in-game features. Apple reversed my charges after an hours-long phone support marathon, but it didn't address the broader issue of fraudulent in-app purchases for over three years, and then only after the FTC intervened and wrangled a settlement out of the consumer electronics giant.
Under the terms of Apple's FTC settlement, the firm paid at least $32.5 million in refunds to parents whose children had unknowingly spent real money on in-app purchases. It then altered the iOS mobile OS, closing the window (15 minutes in this case) during which kids could continue making fraudulent purchases after a parent had OK'd a single purchase. In this sense, it did belatedly prevent children with iOS devices from "spending like a drunken sailor," but years later and only after the federal government intervened.
Despite having received tens of thousands of complaints about this behavior over three-plus years and doing nothing to fix the problem, Apple was nonetheless petulant about the FTC settlement in public pronouncements in which it claimed to have done no wrong. And it's clear that this self-righteous anger hasn't subsided: If Apple was found to have acted improperly with in-app purchases, surely Google could be as well.
And not just Google.
The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Amazon, which operates its own Android app store, is also facing FTC scrutiny over in-app purchases. And if you thought Apple's response to this type of accusation was belligerent, you'll enjoy Amazon's. It says that it simply refunds money to parents when asked and isn't interested in making any changes at all to how in-app purchases works on its own devices.
And then there's T-Mobile, which was charged by the FTC last week with secretly overcharging customers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. At least in this case they weren't explicitly targeting children.
Maybe Microsoft should take a quick look at its in-app purchase policies.