EC slams Apple for in-app purchase policies

Apple maintained that its parental controls "go far beyond the features of others in the industry"

The European Commission took Apple to task Friday for failing to firmly commit to stopping inadvertent in-app purchases, particularly those made by children.

While Google has committed to making changes, Apple has not, the Commission said.

"Regrettably, no concrete and immediate solutions have been made by Apple to date to address the concerns," the Commission said. While Apple has offered proposals to address the problem, it hasn't made a firm commitment or given timing for implementing them, the Commission said.

Following a large number of complaints about in-app purchases in online games, the Commission joined forces with national authorities to get Google and Apple to change their policies. One of the main worries is the offering of "free" app games by developers who seek to make money through in-app purchases, for instance by selling virtual armor and weaponry.

This practice could break EU laws, especially if apps directly solicit children to buy in-app goods, the Commission said.

Last December, consumer protection authorities asked Apple, Google and the Interactive Software Federation of Europe to make changes to in-app purchases in games.

Games that are advertised as "free" should not mislead consumers about the true costs involved, nor should they contain direct exhortation to children to buy items in a game or to persuade an adult to buy items for them. Moreover, consumers should be adequately informed about the payment arrangements for purchases and should not be debited through default settings without consumers' explicit consent. Companies should provide an email address so that consumers can contact them in case of queries or complaints.

An Apple spokesman said in an email Friday that its parental controls "go far beyond the features of others in the industry."

"Over the last year we made sure any app which enables customers to make in-app purchases is clearly marked. We've also created a Kids Section on the App Store with even stronger protections to cover apps designed for children younger than 13," he said. Apple will continue to work with the Commission and member states to respond to their concerns, he said.

Apple has started displaying the text "In-App Purchases" in close proximity to the download button for all apps that are marketed on Apple's platforms as "free", members of the European Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) network said in a position paper published Friday. However, the font of the "In-App Purchases" text is considerably smaller than the word "FREE" and may be difficult to read on smaller screens, they said.

Moreover, only apps where in-app purchases are optional can be presented as "free" without misleading consumers, they said, adding that has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis for each app that includes in-app purchases.

Apple also proposed creating a specific email address through which enforcement authorities can inform Apple about possible violations of applicable law and coordinate discussions with the developers concerned. It also proposed appointing a team to deal with such notifications, but so far, no precise implementation date for these proposals has been put forward, the CPC network said.

Google on the other hand did commit itself to implementing a number of changes that should be completed by the end of September, the Commission said.

Those changes include not using the word "free" at all when games contain in-app purchases. Google will also develop guidelines for its app developers to prevent direct exhortation to children as defined under EU law, as well as measures to help monitor apparent breaches of EU consumer laws. It has also adapted its default settings, so that payments are authorized prior to every in-app purchase, unless the consumer actively chooses to modify these settings, the Commission said.

The Commission will continue to monitor implementation of these proposals to see if the problem is solved. If not then further action is possible, but because consumer policy is enforced by member states, any enforcement action would have to be taken on a national level, it said.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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