Apps face regulation if rogue developers don’t behave
The apps market will end up being regulated if it can’t control the way rogue developers behave, according to industry experts in the wake of a damning report into privacy breaches in children’s apps.
Last week, the US Federal Trade Commission lambasted developers and platforms over the way they grabbed information from apps marketed at children. Meanwhile, developer Gameloft drew criticism for an in-app purchase for gems in a Playmobil game that cost £70.
“Do I think the industry is going to get regulated? I absolutely do,” said Nicholas Lovell, an independent games industry consultant interested in apps.
“If we don’t get our own house in order then frankly I think we should,” he told PC Pro. “I don’t want to get regulated and think it would be unhelpful for the industry and I’m not convinced it would be better, but if someone somewhere doesn’t start taking responsibility for these issues, then perhaps it should happen.”
If someone somewhere doesn’t start taking responsibility for these issues then perhaps regulation should happen
According to Lovell, apps targeting children should have a more responsible approach than others because youngsters may not be able to understand the implications of their actions within apps, and parents can be unaware of the issues.
“Children are more susceptible to social manipulation and when you ask them for money they don’t have the rational awareness,” he said. “If you’re using behavioural psychology to try and kid four year olds, you can cross the line very very quickly.”
The Federal Trade Commission said in its report that apps were sharing an “alarming” amount of information with third parties – including in some cases phone numbers – without telling parents.
As with sales and in-app payments, it shouldn’t be assumed that children understand the implications of agreeing to permissions for data sharing.
“There are questions over whether they are able to make a decision about permission for apps,” said Lovell.
“If something is going to take information, an 18 year old may be able to understand it, but an eight year old is not,” Lovell said, adding that collecting and sharing phone numbers as revealed in the FTC report was pushing things too far. “There’s no justification for giving out phone numbers to anyone, ever – even 1% is still a disturbingly high figure.”
Although authorities might be able to clamp down on prices and practices for in-app payments, the privacy issue is a tougher challenge. According to one technology lawyer, the problems caused by different jurisdictions mean there’s little chance of a unified approach.
“Different countries have different data privacy systems, and they are in principle applied to apps, although the actually implementation of them is still developing,” said Jas Purewell, a lawyer with Osbourne Clarke. “There are discussions going on across the EU about how privacy laws which already exist can evolve to deal with mobile.”
This leaves anyone trying to take action over a privacy breach or misleading policies facing a daunting challenge. “It’s much harder to take action outside your jurisdiction and it would have to be a particularly serious matter to warrant that kind of regulatory intervention, but it does happen,” Purewell said.
In the UK, data can be legally collected on children from the age of 13, but the age varies across the EU, let alone the rest of the world.
“There are rules regarding minimum age, but mobile provides significant challenges because it’s hard to verify how old a child is and therefore who you are collecting data from,” said Purewell.