With more than six million apps currently in existence, the ‘appification’ of society is increasingly a topic of discussion, and certainly it was prominent at the 35th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Warsaw in September. Apps often collect large amounts of personal data and therefore have significant potential privacy implications. Young children are particularly vulnerable in this respect, as they can be captivated by online and app-based games and less aware of potential risks.

In September, the UK’s Office of Fair Trading (OFT) reported on its investigation into the ways in which online and app-based games encourage children to make purchases. It is now consulting on proposed principles that the online games industry will be expected to adhere to achieve compliance with consumer protection laws, in particular with regards to children, who often constitute the “average consumer” in this context. The consultation closes on 21 November 2013.

The OFT investigation scrutinised the commercial practices of 38 web and app-based games popular with children and identified the following areas of concern:

  • A lack of transparent, accurate, up-front information relating to costs available prior to the decision to play or download game
  • Misleading practices, including failing to separately identify commercial intent interspersed in game play
  • Exploitation of children’s inexperience, vulnerability and credulity, including aggressive and manipulative commercial practices
  • Direct exhortations to children to buy advertised products
  • Payments taken from account holders without their knowledge, express authorisation or informed consent

To resolve these concerns the OFT has proposed the following principles which are intended to apply industry wide:

  1. Information about all costs associated with a game should be provided clearly, accurately and prominently up-front
  2. All information about the game necessary for the average consumer to make an informed decision to play, download, sign up or purchase a game should be clear, accurate, prominent and provided up-front
  3. Information about the business should be clear, accurate, prominent and provided up-front. It should be clear to the consumer whom to contact in the case of queries or complaints and the business should be capable of being contacted rapidly and communicated with in a direct and effective manner
  4. The commercial intent of any in-game promotion of paid-for content or promotion of any other product or services should be clear and distinguishable from game play
  5. 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
  6. 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 impact such practices are likely to have.
  7. A game should not include direct exhortations to children to make a purchase or persuade others to purchase for them
  8. Payments should not be taken from the payment account holder unless authorised. Separate informed consent should be required for in-game payments (i.e. payments additional to any one-off payment authorised at the outset to purchase, download or sign up to the game). The amount to be debited should be made clear. Consent should not be assumed, e.g. through opt-out provisions and the consumer should positively indicate his/her informed consent.

The OFT has launched a consultation on the proposed principles. All responses must be received by 5 p.m. on 21 November 2013 by email to: childrensonlinegames@oft.gsi.gov.uk or by post to: Children’s Online Games Consultation, Office of Fair Trading, Fleetbank House, 2-6 Salisbury Square, London EC4Y 8JX. The final version of the principles is due to be published by February 2014, with a grace period until 1 April 2014, after which enforcement action may be taken against businesses likely to be in breach of consumer protection law.