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.
Netflix crackdown, monetizing ChatGPT and bypassing FB’s 2FA • TechCrunch
Happy weekend, folks, and welcome back to the TechCrunch Week in Review. Henry here, standing in for a vacationing Kyle Wiggers, who is standing in for a parental-leaving Greg Kumparak. Listen, we’ve got a deep bench, and both blokes will be back very soon. Until then, check out just a few of the top stories from the week.
Want it in your inbox every Saturday AM? You can take care of that right here.
Netflix’s password-sharing crackdown: The streaming giant has grown tired of its customers sharing passwords with friends and loved ones around the world. So this week it announced guidelines designed to keep the passwords close to home. Literally inside the walls of the abode of the account holder.
Monetized ChatGPT: OpenAI this week launched a pilot subscription for its text-generating AI. For $20 a month, subscribers can access more than what the base level gets: access to ChatGPT during peak hours, faster response times and priority access to new features and improvements.
Human or AI?: That is the question, and apparently OpenAI wants to help. The company launched a tool that is designed to distinguish between human-written and AI-generated text, but the success rate is only around 26%. OpenAI did say, though, that when used with other methods, it could help prevent AI text generators from being abused.
Bypassing FB 2FA: Meta created a new centralized system so users could manage their logins for Facebook and Instagram, but a bug could have allowed malicious hackers to switch off 2FA just by knowing a user’s phone number. Yikes. A security researcher from Nepal discovered the bug and reported it to Meta Accounts Center last September. And he got paid.
Salesforce layoffs hit: In January, the company announced the imminent reduction of 10% of its workforce. Not everyone was notified at the time, however. This week, hundreds more of the company’s staff found out the fate of their jobs.
“Spill the tea”: Alphonzo “Phonz” Terrell lost his job at Twitter as its global head of Social & Editorial three months ago and promptly got to work on a new app. Called Spill, the app has already attracted a seed round and 60,000 handle reservations. The app is due to launch in alpha during the first quarter of this year.
Google Fi breach: The company said its cell network provider, Google Fi, confirmed a data breach, which, based on the timing of the notice, was likely related to the recent security incident at T-Mobile that allowed hackers to steal millions of customers’ information.
This week out of the TechCrunch Podcast Network, Equity covered the usual slate of venture and startup funding news, and Mary Ann spoke with Hans Tung, investor and managing partner of GGVC, a venture firm with more than $9 billion in assets under management. On Found, Darrell and Becca talked to Rosie Nguyen, a co-founder and the CMO of Fanhouse, about her journey from content creator to founder and how her experience as a creator informs every product decision at Fanhouse.
TC+ subscribers get access to in-depth commentary, analysis and surveys — which you know if you’re already a subscriber. If you’re not, consider signing up. I doubt you’ll regret it. Just check out the highlights from this week:
Not quite secondarily: Becca reports on data this week that shows secondary deals are breaking away from the downturned venture market this year.
Open source startups: Paul Sawers examines a report out this week that explores which commercial open source software startups are growing fast and raising cash.
Go team: Ever wonder which slide is the most important slide in a startup’s pitch deck? Why, it’s the team slide and Haje expresses his surprise at just how many startups fail to tell a good story about their teams. And speaking of pitch decks, Haje brings Laoshi’s $570K angel deck breakdown to you.
Dear Sophie: Immigration Sophie Alcorn answers the question, What H-1B and other immigration changes can we expect this year?
Amazon ramped up content spending to $16.6B in 2022, including $7B on originals • TechCrunch
Amazon detailed the costs of its content business during its fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday, citing that its content expenses jumped to $16.6 billion in 2022, a 28% increase from $13 billion in 2021.
According to Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky, around $7 billion of that figure went towards Amazon Originals, live sports programming, and licensed third-party video content included with Prime. In 2021, Amazon had spent $5 billion on those three areas of content, for comparison.
While the company didn’t break down exactly how much it invests in each title, it’s reported that Amazon is spending more than $1 billion annually for its NFL streaming rights. Plus, the first season of “The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power,” the most-watched Amazon original series worldwide, cost over $500 million.
Streaming services know by now that original content is the key to standing out amongst rivals and reducing churn. Amazon is likely boosting its content investments to better compete with Disney, Netflix, and HBO Max. Disney spends approximately $33 billion on content, while both Netflix and HBO Max spend a reported $18 billion. *Note that a portion of Disney’s figure goes towards sports rights—around $11 billion.) Paramount+ also plans to increase streaming content spending to $6 billion by 2024, it recently said.
Amazon didn’t report subscriber numbers for its streaming business. However, Olsavsky boasted during the earnings call that its Prime Video content is a “strong driver of Prime member engagement and new Prime member acquisition,” Olsavsky said.
For instance, “The Rings of Power” was viewed by over 100 million global viewers with more than 24 billion minutes streamed. The company added that, during its launch window, “The Lord of the Rings” series helped drive more Prime sign-ups worldwide than any previous Prime Video content.
Amazon also touted that Thursday Night Football reached the youngest median age audience of any NFL broadcast package since 2013, and viewership among fans ages 18 to 34 years old increased by 11% compared to the 2021 season.
The company claimed the TNF games had an average audience of 11.3 million viewers. The first exclusive TNF game on Prime Video had 15.3 million viewers. Before the 2022 season began, Amazon expected to reach about 12.5 million viewers per week.
Other original content added to the streamer in 2022 includes “My Policeman” starring Harry Styles, the third season of “Jack Ryan” and the Western drama “The English,” among others.
Amazon is also benefiting from its 2022 acquisition of MGM for $8.5 billion. The company noted that “Wednesday,” the MGM-produced series on Netflix, premiered at No. 1 on Nielsen’s weekly streaming charts and earned two Golden Globe nominations. In December, “Wednesday” became the second most popular English-language series on Netflix, surpassing 1.02 billion total hours viewed in just three weeks since its streaming release. Over 150 million households watched the show.
Prime members in the U.S. also saw the return of HBO Max as a Prime Video Channel offering, giving customers access to approximately 15,000 hours of premium content.
‘Nothing, Forever,’ an AI ‘Seinfeld’ spoof, is the next ‘Twitch Plays Pokémon’ • TechCrunch
“So, I was at the store the other day, and as I’m checking out, the cashier asks me if I have any coupons, and I say, ‘No coupon problem!’” recalls a pixelated, barely three-dimensional figure that vaguely resembles Jerry Seinfeld. “So I’m walking down the street, and this guy comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and I say, ‘It’s going coupon!’”
An automated laugh track plays, but the joke doesn’t make sense. Then again, it doesn’t have to make sense.
“Nothing, Forever” is a never-ending, AI-generated spoof of “Seinfeld,” the show about nothing. It’s been streaming on Twitch since December, and until a few days ago, the stream had an average of about four concurrent viewers. Now, at the moment I write this, there are 15,097 people watching a group of badly animated friends — Larry Feinberg, Fred Kastopolous, Yvonne Torres and Zoltan Kalker — cycling through infinite “Seinfeld”-like scenes with very little plot.
The show has been streaming almost non-stop on Twitch since December, but it only reached a wider audience this week, when its creators slowly started promoting the stream on Reddit. Now, “Nothing, Forever” has over 98,000 followers on Twitch, and a Discord with about 6,000 members.
Behind the project are Skyler Hartle, a senior product manager at Microsoft, and Brian Habersberger, a polymer physicist. They call themselves Mismatch Media, though this venture remains a side project.
Aptly, the duo met online while playing “Team Fortress 2” and they kept in touch over time. Four years ago, they started working on creative projects together.
“It kind of started its journey as a kind of art project that Brian approached me with, and we ended up collaborating and working on it together and iterating on it over the last four years,” Hartle told TechCrunch. “The show we’re creating is really cool, and scratches that creative itch as just a surreal, fun kind of project, but we saw the merit of generative technology as a tool for broad scale content creation and generation.”
To make “Nothing, Forever,” Hartle and Habersberger use various AI models to generate text, speech, and movements. The “script” of the show comes from an Open AI’s GPT-3 model, Davinci. To voice the characters, they use the Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services speech API, and the visuals are made on the Unity game engine.
“The Unity engine just does a lot of interpretation to basically run the show and inherit all this content, and the voices, and all these kinds of other pieces of direction from what we call ‘the director’ in the cloud,” Hartle said. “And the director dictates what happens on the show from a generative perspective.”
They set out to create a surrealist, never-ending television show, and it simply made sense to base it on “Seinfeld,” a show that has defined the structure of a sitcom.
“A sitcom has a laugh track and a sort of formulaic structure,” Habersberger told TechCrunch. “So when characters are saying things that don’t quite make sense, but the structure is one that you’re very familiar with, it really helps you to interpret and make sense of it, even though the sense isn’t there.”
AI dialogue can get repetitive. Characters are constantly referencing new restaurants and stores to the point that it’s become an in-joke. On a fan-made “Nothing, Forever” bingo generator, the free space is “New thing!”
Per the nascent wiki, some new places include a new type of bagel (it’s shaped like an octopus, and called the octobagel), a new shake shop (they serve pickles in their shakes), a new taco truck (they sell tacos and burgers) and a new all-you-can-eat buffet (nothing but pink flamingo wings!). One of the few interactive items in Larry’s apartment is a microwave, a prop that characters frequently and inexplicably use in ways that have no bearing on the plot — the microwave has spurred a fandom of its own, custom Discord emojis and all.
“To take that idea even further, ‘Seinfeld’ is famously the show about nothing. What could be more nothing than a robot, right?” said Habersberger. “And then even further with ‘Seinfeld,’ there was a period of fifteen years or so where you could just turn on the TV, and if you flip through the channels, there’s a good chance it’s on, because it was syndicated […] So I was like, wait, now it can really be always on.”
We’ve all seen far too many AI-generated gimmicks, but the AI isn’t what’s most interesting about “Nothing, Forever.” It’s the community that’s gathered around the stream, making the project feel like this generation’s “Twitch Plays Pokémon.”
Image Credits: Nothing, Forever (opens in a new window)
In 2014, an anonymous Australian streamer set up a channel where fans could collaboratively play “Pokémon Red,” pressing buttons and moving the player character via Twitch chat commands. When enough players got involved, the stream turned into chaos. (The route through Rock Tunnel is confusing enough, but imagine navigating it with thousands of people clamoring to control the character’s movement.)
Yet over the two weeks it took to beat the game, fans built deep lore to explain why the character was behaving so erratically. No, we didn’t keep opening our bag to look at the Helix Fossil because of the chaotic button mashing in the chat; indeed, it was because our player character worshiped the Helix Fossil like a deity.
In the same vein, “Nothing, Forever” fans try to parse dialogue to learn more about the universe of the show. On Discord, fans requested a new channel to keep track of new lore as it develops; one page on the wiki chronicles what we know from past mentions of aliens. The community also keeps track of Larry’s recurring standup jokes, which are pretty bad (“What do you call a bear with no teeth? A gummy bear”), but somehow get funnier the more they’re repeated.
“The way that the chat is engaging, they’re kind of creating their own memes and their own culture,” said Hartle. “We’ve had people who have reached out wanting to be community mods and have been watching the show for eight hours at a time.”
Like “Twitch Plays Pokémon,” the creators of “Nothing, Forever” hope to include audience participation features in the future. Hartle told TechCrunch that there are not currently any interactivity features embedded in the livestream, though some fans began theorizing that they were causing Larry to repeat his jokes by getting excited when he talked about gummy bears again.
Mismatch Media hopes they can repurpose the tech stack behind “Nothing, Forever” into an actual system for creating generative media projects. For now, Hartle and Habersburger are taking things slow with their newfound popularity. They’ve been able to make a bit of money from Patreon and Twitch subscriptions, but it’s still unclear how long it will take for the novelty of “Nothing, Forever” to wear off.
Sudden virality can’t last forever. “Twitch Plays Pokémon” became an ongoing series after the completion of the first game, but fan engagement dropped drastically once the excitement around the initial experiment died down. Now, we just fondly remember it as a time when the internet felt less hellish, capturing the same lightning in a bottle as projects like r/Place.
Similarly, it’s difficult to predict how long “Nothing, Forever” will retain its fanbase, and whether or not people would find more joy if the creators started other constant, AI-based sitcom spoofs.
For now, it’s a simple delight to just click off Twitter and watch Larry tell the same jokes over and over.
“What did the fish say when it swam into a wall?”
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