Earlier this year, the UK’s Office of Fair Trading (OFT) announced plans to investigate children’s apps and games for their use of in-app purchases, advertising, and personal data.
Tonight, it has published its initial report, based on examining 38 apps and web games, and around 200 submissions from parents, developers, and other interested parties.
It’s an interesting read. The OFT has concluded that there is room for improvement, and has outlined eight principles that developers of apps and games aimed at kids should follow. None of them are hugely surprising, and some are being done already. But they’re sensible suggestions that parents will welcome.
What are they? Here are the principles:
- Information about the costs associated with a game should be provided clearly, accurately, and prominently up-front before the consumer begins to play, download or sign up to it or agrees to make a purchase.
- All material information about the game should be clear, accurate, prominent, and provided up-front before the consumer begins to play, download or sign up to it or agrees to make a purchase. ‘Material information’ includes any information necessary for the average consumer to make an informed decision to play, download or sign up to the game or to make a purchase.
- Information about the business should be clear, accurate, prominent, and provided up-front before the consumer begins to play, download or sign up to the game or agrees to make a purchase. It should be clear to the consumer who he/she ought to contact in case of queries or complaints. The business should be capable of being contacted rapidly and communicated within a direct and effective manner.
- The commercial intent of any in-game promotion of paid-for content, or promotion of any other product or service, should be clear and distinguishable from gameplay.
- A game should not mislead consumers by giving the false impression that payments are required or are an integral part of the way the game is played if that is not the case.
- Games should not include practices that are aggressive, or which otherwise have the potential to exploit a child’s inherent inexperience, vulnerability, or credulity. The younger a child is, the greater the likely impact those practices will have, and the language, design, visual interface, and structure of the game should take account of that.
- A game should not include direct exhortations to children to make a purchase or persuade others to make purchases for them.
- Payments should not be taken from the payment account holder unless authorized. A payment made in a game is not authorized unless informed consent for that payment has been given by the payment account holder. The scope of the agreement and the amount to be debited should be made clear to the consumer so he/she can give informed consent. Consent should not be assumed, for example through the use of opt-out provisions, and the consumer should positively indicate his/her informed consent.
There are lots of examples given about apps (and marketing for apps) that are more or less likely to comply with these principles, to help developers choose the right path.
“This is a new and innovative industry that has grown very rapidly in recent years, but it needs to ensure it is treating consumers fairly and that children are protected,” said the OFT’s executive director Cavendish Elithorn in a statement.
“The way the sector has worked with us since we launched our investigation is encouraging, and we’ve already seen some positive changes to its practices. These principles provide a clear benchmark for how games makers should be operating. Once they are finalized, we will expect the industry to follow them, or risk enforcement action.”
The OFT wants to hear from you as parents (as well as from the apps industry and consumer groups) about what you think about the eight principles. Feedback submitted before 21 November will help shape the final versions, which will be published early next year.
Then, from April, apps that flout the principles could face “enforcement action” under British consumer protection laws.