A coalition of 22 consumer and public health advocacy groups, led by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), have today filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking them to investigate and sanction Google for how its Google Play Store markets apps to children. The complaint states that Google features apps designed for very young children in its Play Store’s “Family” section, many of which are violating federal children’s privacy law, exposing kids to inappropriate content and disregarding Google’s own policies by luring kids into making in-app purchases and watching ads.
Google Play ‘Family’ section
Google first introduced its “Designed for Families” program back in 2015, which gives developers of kid-friendly apps meeting certain guidelines additional visibility in the Play Store. This includes a placement in the Family section, where apps are organized by age appropriateness.
To qualify, “Family” apps must abide by specific content policies, Google’s Developer Distribution Agreement and the Designed for Families DDA Addendum. The apps also must meet the Designed for Families program requirements. Legal compliance with federal privacy laws, including COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule), are among the requirements.
COPPA is designed to protect children under the age of 13 by giving parents control over what information sites and apps can collect from their kids.
Above: Google Play store showcases children’s content in its own dedicated sections
But the new FTC complaint claims that Google is not verifying COPPA compliance when it accepts these apps and, as a result, many are in continual violation of the law.
“Our research revealed a surprising number of privacy violations on Android apps for children, including sharing geolocation with third parties,” said Serge Egelman, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, in a statement shared by the group. “Given Google’s assertion that Designed for Families apps must be COPPA compliant, it’s disappointing these violations still abound, even after Google was alerted to the scale of the problem,” he added.
TechCrunch asked the coalition if it had some idea about how many apps were in violation of COPPA, and were told the groups don’t know an exact number.
“From our survey — and more comprehensive analyses like the PET Study — it seems fairly prevalent,” Lindsey Barrett, Staff Attorney at Georgetown’s Institute for Public Representation, told us.
“The PET Study found that 73 percent of the kids apps in the Play store transmitted sensitive data over the internet, and we saw apps sending geolocation without notice and verifiable parental consent, and sending personal information unencrypted,” Barrett said. “Further, under COPPA, children’s PII cannot be used for behavioral advertising. Yet, many of the children’s apps we looked at were sending information to ad networks which say their services should not be used with children’s apps,” she added.
The apps also engage in other bad behaviors, like regularly showing ads that are difficult to exit or showing those that require viewing in order to continue the current game, according to the complaint. Some apps pressure kids into making in-app purchases — in one example, the game characters were crying if the kids didn’t buy the locked items, it notes. Others show ads for alcohol and gambling, despite those being barred by Google’s Ad Policy.
Above: disturbing images from TabTale apps
The coalition additionally called out some apps for containing “graphic, sexualized images” like TutoTOONS “Sweet Baby Girl Daycare 4 – Babysitting Fun,” which has more than 10 million downloads. (The game has a part where kids change a baby’s diaper, wipe their diaper area, then rub powder all over the baby’s body.) Others model harmful behavior, like TabTale’s “Crazy Eye Clinic,” which teaches children to clean their eyes with a sharp instrument, and has more than one million downloads. (The game is currently not available on Google Play and its webpage is down.)
The complaint also broadly takes issue with apps that use common SDKs like those from Unity or Flurry (disclosure: Flurry and TechCrunch share a corporate parent) to collect device identifiers from the children’s apps.
“Nearly three-quarters of the apps in the Family section transmit device identifiers to third parties,” reads the complaint. “There is no way for us to know for sure what the device identifiers are used for. Since many of the apps send device identifiers to third parties that specialize in monetizing apps and/or engaging in interest-based (behavioral) advertising, it seems unlikely that this information is being used solely to support internal operations,” it says.
Above: Strawberry Shortcake Puppy Palace was called out for aggressive monetization efforts. Strawberry tells kids to buy things to keep the puppy happy — the implication is if you don’t pay, you’re making puppies sad.
The groups say that Google has been aware of all these problems for some time, but hasn’t taken adequate steps to enforce its criteria for developers. As a result, the consumer advocacy groups are urging the FTC to investigate the Play Store’s practices.
The coalition had previously asked the FTC to investigate developers of children’s apps aimed at preschoolers who were using manipulative advertising. But today’s complaint is focused on Google.
“Google (Alphabet, Inc.) has long engaged in unethical and harmful business practices, especially when it comes to children,” explained Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “And the Federal Trade Commission has for too long ignored this problem, placing both children and their parents at risk over their loss of privacy, and exposing them to a powerful and manipulative marketing apparatus. As one of the world’s leading providers of content for kids online, Google continues to put the enormous profits they make from kids ahead of any concern for their welfare,” Chester said.
Apple was not similarly called out because a similar analysis has not yet been done on its app marketplace, Josh Golin, executive director at CCFC told us. In Google’s case, he explained, two major studies found widespread issues with the Play Store apps for kids. One from Berkeley researchers found widespread COPPA non-compliance; the other, by University of Michigan researchers, found children’s play experience was often completely interrupted and undermined by aggressive marketing tactics.
The complaint comes at a time where there is increased scrutiny as to how tech companies are misusing and abusing consumer data and violating privacy. Kids game have already been the subject of some concern. And this morning, an NYT investigation into Facebook revealed it had shared more of users’ personal data than disclosed with major tech companies, following a year of data scandals.
The issue of data privacy is an industry-wide problem. Tech companies’ failures on this front will likely lead to increased regulation going forward.
Not all the named developers were immediately available to comment this morning. We’ll update if comments are provided. (Update: TutoToons says they removed the inappropriate content from the app after becoming aware of the complaint. They urged parents and child advocacy groups to reach out to them directly in the future.)
Google says it’s taking the complaint seriously. It has removed thousands of apps from its Designed for Families program this year, and rejects a third of applications.
“Parents want their children to be safe online and we work hard to protect them. Apps in our Designed for Families program have to comply with strict policies on content, privacy and advertising, and we take action on any policy violations that we find,” a Google spokesperson says. “We take these issues very seriously and continue to work hard to remove any content that is inappropriately aimed at children from our platform,” they added.
The full complaint is below.
Years after its Audm acquisition, The New York Times launches its own audio app
Several years ago, The New York Times acquired audio journalism app Audm with the goal of using it as the basis of its own audio product. Today, the media company is unveiling the result of that work with the official debut of New York Times Audio — a new mobile app that combines the publication’s top podcasts, like “The Daily,” “The Ezra Klein Show,” “Hard Fork,” “Modern Love,” “The Run-Up,” and others, with those made exclusively for the new platform. These will range from short news briefs to lifestyle content to narrated longform journalism and more.
Plus, thanks to its $25 million acquisition of the production studio behind “Serial,” the app includes content related to that deal, as well. This includes the namesake show itself, plus new shows from the studio like “The Trojan Horse Affair,” “The Coldest Case in Laramie,” and others, as well as “This American Life,” hosted by Ira Glass, among others.
The Times has heavily invested in audio programming as another way to reach its audience, and particularly those who want to engage with its journalism while on the go — like when commuting, walking their dog, running, or traveling, for example. But, typically, NYT’s content is accessed through the third-party platforms where users already stream their podcasts, like Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Isolating that content in its own app gives NYT a more direct relationship with its audience, of course, which means it can also collect more data on user behavior, like what people stream and download. (Plus, it could sell its own ads). But its appeal could be limited given that the app will not have a podcast catalog to rival existing platforms, where people already stream their favorite NYT shows, like “The Daily.”
And, with the addition of exclusives to NYT Audio, listeners will have to constantly toggle between apps to hear all the shows they want to tune into — and that’s not necessarily something they’ll want to do.
Even Spotify belatedly realized that its exclusive strategy with podcasts was not paying off. The company once believed it could entice users with big names and could generate its own popular originals by purchasing studios, but it has since pivoted to focus more on being the hosting platform rather than the creator, laying off top podcast execs in the process. NPR also recently canceled four of its podcasts amid its own set of layoffs, which makes for an uncertain market ahead for NYT Audio.
Still, there could be some attraction for NYT loyalists or those who haven’t already made podcast listening a part of their routines, and will see this new app as a sort of value-add on top of their existing subscription. For the crowd willing to give the app a try, there will be a number of new shows to sample.
For starters, there’s a new morning show called “The Headlines,” hosted by Times reporter Annie Correal, that will catch you up on top stories in 10 minutes or less and let you hear from reporters across NYT’s newsroom. Meanwhile, a new short-form series, “Shorts,” will offer lifestyle content like recipe idea, TV and book recommendations, travel inspiration, and tips for living well.
A feature called “The Magazine Stand” will offer a curated selection of narrated longform journalism from other outlets, which is essentially what Audm had provided.
The company says that, as a result of this launch, the standalone Audm app will now be sunset. All existing Audm iOS subscribers will automatically transition to NYT Audio at the same monthly or annual rate, so they can continue accessing their existing narrated article content.
There is also a “Daily Playlist” that pieces together top stories, culture stories and other content into an hour or less and a “Reporter Reads” feature where journalists read their own work and share additional context around the story.
“This American Life,” “Serial” and other shows from Serial Productions are also included, along with sports talk shows from “The Athletic.”
The NYT’s audio app has been in beta testing for roughly a year and half before today’s arrival, and is available to all news subscribers.
The company notes it has no plans to pull any of its existing content from third-party platforms, like Apple or Spotify, as a result of this launch.
The app’s arrifval follows The New York Times’ expanded investment in its own lineup of dedicated mobile apps which now include the popular NYT Cooking app, and, more recently, an updated NYT Games (previously, Crossword), which recently benefitted from its Wordle acquistion.
“We’re thrilled to introduce more people to a new way of experiencing The New York Times,” said Stephanie Preiss, senior vice president and general manager, Audio, in a launch announcement. “Audio journalism has the power to bring stories to life, and our app now allows our audience to take The Times with them — on dog walks, while commuting — in moments when reading isn’t an option. Offering New York Times Audio to news subscribers is just one way we’re adding more value to a Times subscription, in more moments throughout their day,” she added.
The New York Times Audio app is iOS-only.
As of the time of writing, it’s moved up to the No. 5 slot in the U.S. App Store’s News section.
Roku launches new sports hub dedicated to women’s sporting events
Roku is giving sports fans what they want—better access to women’s live sports. The company announced Wednesday the launch of Women’s Sports Zone, a new centralized hub that makes it easier for users to search, discover and stream women’s sports programming, from live games, matches and events to on-demand and free content.
Women’s Sports Zone will provide games from the National Women’s Soccer League, US Women’s World Cup, US Women’s Open, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) and more. In addition, fans can watch free female-focused sports content on The Roku Channel, such as the Women’s Sports Network, “The Longshots,” “Prodigy” and “Bring It!” among others.
Plus, the newly launched hub comes as the 2023 WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) season tips off this Friday, May 19, giving Roku users the ability to stream all games across channels like ESPN, ABC, CBS and CBS Sports Network, along with streaming services like ESPN+, Paramount+, Prime Video and WNBA League Pass.
The Women’s Sports Zone is located within Roku’s sports experience. Users can scroll down to the “Sports” tab on the home screen to find the new hub. They can also search for “women’s sports” or a favorite team or league in Roku Search or by using Roku Voice with the TV remote.
Demand around women’s sports increases year after year, with 30% of U.S. sports fans saying they’re watching more women’s sports than they were five years ago, per a 2022 study by the National Research Group. Additionally, 85% of sports fans — including 79% of men – agree that it’s essential for women’s sports to continue growing in popularity. Just by looking at the WNBA alone, viewership has grown dramatically for the league. Its 2022 season garnered an average of 416,000 viewers across all networks, making it the most-watched full season since 2006.
“The popularity and demand for women’s sports is greater than ever, and at Roku, we continue to commit to elevating this important programming for our customers,” said Kelli Raftery, Roku’s VP of Global Communications, in a statement. “At a time when it is harder than ever to find what you want to watch, our new Women’s Sports Zone makes it easier for fans to get to the content they love, and it arrives just in time for the tip-off of the WNBA season this Friday.”
Disney+ changes up its release model, plans to launch all ‘Echo’ episodes at once
President of Marvel Studios Kevin Fiege took to the Disney Upfront stage Tuesday to announce that Marvel’s new Disney+ show, “Echo,” is getting a binge release– a first for an MCU series. Disney+ will drop all Season 1 episodes on November 29.
The “Hawkeye” spinoff stars Alaqua Cox as Maya Lopez, a deaf Native American character who has photographic reflexes. She is the adoptive daughter of supervillain Kingpin (played by Vincent D’Onofrio), however, has been known to fight alongside Daredevil, who wants to take down the criminal underworld. It’s reported that Charlie Cox is returning as Daredevil in “Echo.”
This will be the fourth female-led MCU series on Disney+, joining “Wandavision,” “She-Hulk” and “Ms. Marvel.”
Disney’s new binge strategy is a surprising move for the company and follows in the footsteps of rival Netflix, which swears by its bingeable release model as it drives “substantial engagement, especially for newer titles,” Netflix previously said in its Q3 2022 shareholder letter.
Disney+ tested the waters with its Star Wars titles, starting off with “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” which was the first live-action Star Wars show to premiere with multiple episodes. Meanwhile, “Andor” had a three-episode premiere and was the longest live-action Disney+ season with 12 episodes.
It’s likely the company feels the pressure to change up its release approach after losing four million Disney+ subscribers in the recent quarter, bringing the total to 157.8 million. In the first quarter of 2023, the streaming service saw its first subscriber loss, dropping 2.4 million subs.
Disney plans to save $5.5 billion in overall costs, with $3 billion going toward content savings.
The move also comes as Marvel rethinks its game plan. Fiege previously said the studio wants to be more calculated about which MCU projects get released. It’s been argued that many fans are overwhelmed by the wave of superhero shows, and it’s time for Marvel to slow it down a bit.
“It is harder to hit the zeitgeist when there’s so much product out there — and so much ‘content,’ as they say, which is a word that I hate,” Fiege said in an Entertainment Weekly interview. “But we want Marvel Studios and the MCU projects to really stand out and stand above. So, people will see that as we get further into Phase 5 and 6. The pace at which we’re putting out the Disney+ shows will change so they can each get a chance to shine.”
So, instead of airing episodes week to week, the decision to release “Echo” as a complete season looks to be the beginning of a deliberate effort to gradually reduce the MCU release schedule.
During the Upfronts presentation, Fiege also revealed the official premiere date for “Loki” Season 2, which is coming to Disney+ on October 6.
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