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Monday, December 17, 2012

SpongeBob Game Removed From App Store After Complaints

SpongeBob Diner Dash, a free game app for children featuring the popular yellow cartoon character loved by millions of youngsters, disappeared from the Apple App Store on Monday after an advocacy group complained that the app violated federal privacy protections for children online.

The Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit group in Washington, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on Monday, saying the SpongeBob app violated a children's online privacy law by collecting children's e-mail addresses and other information without obtaining their parents' permission. The group asked federal regulators to investigate PlayFirs t, the developer of the Diner Dash app, and Viacom, the parent company of the Nickelodeon network which carries the SpongeBob SquarePants cable TV program, over “deceptive marketing.”

David Bittler, a spokesman for Nickelodeon, said the company had learned of the advocates' filing on Monday morning and had temporarily taken down the app while it investigated their complaint.

A spokeswoman for PlayFirst referred questions from a reporter to Nickelodeon.

The SpongeBob complaint comes as the F.T.C. is preparing to update privacy protections for children online. Those rules, based on a 1998 law, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or Coppa, require operators of Web sites directed at children to notify parents and obtain their consent before collecting information like names, e-mail addresses and phone numbers from children under 13. The law is meant to give parents more control over entities that collect personal details about younger children online, often with the aim of contacting them for marketing purposes.

SpongeBob Diner Dash is a game app in which children can earn points by directing the sponge character to serve customers in various colorful cartoon restaurants. The free app frequently asks users if they want to pay a small fee to upgrade to the premium version of the game or buy special game features - in both cases by charging a credit card attached to the device's Apple account.

In Apple's App Store on Monday morning, the description of the SpongeBob app explained that it collected “personal user data as well as nonpersonal user data,” connected with third-party social media apps, allowed players to communicate with other app users and included in-app purchases. It also stated that the app complied with federal privacy protections for children online.

“User data collection i s in accordance with applicable law, such as Coppa,” the description said.

But in its complaint to the F.T.C., the advocacy group said the app neither provided the kind of notice required by that children's online privacy law,  “nor makes any attempt to obtain prior, verifiable parental consent required by the law.”

The description in the app store
, along with links to the two companies' privacy policies, did not provide notice of the specific information the app collected, according to the complaint. And the app itself did not contain a privacy policy explaining its data collection practices.

The app, for example, asked a player to enter “your name” and e-mail address to receive a “newsletter for game tips and news!” It also asked permission to send players on-screen notices. These included messages â€" like “Help Spong eBob serve hungry customers in SpongeBob Diner Dash!” â€" that encouraged children to play the game. To contact specific children with such messages, the complaint said, the app collected a string of numbers that was unique to each mobile device.

But the app did not ask children to check with their parents before entering their information or agreeing to receive the notices, the complaint said. (A reporter who downloaded and played the app on Monday morning had the same experience. After the app collected the e-mail address, it did not e-mail the promised newsletter - leaving a question about how the app actually uses player e-mail addresses).

This is the second complaint about children's app developers lodged this month by the Center for Digital Democracy. Last week, the group filed a complaint with the F.T.C. saying Mo bbles, a Pokemon-inspired cartoon game app, also collected data from children without seeking parental consent. The developer of Mobbles said the app was not meant for children under 13.

In a letter to the agency accompanying the SpongeBob complaint, the advocacy group asked federal regulators to increase enforcement actions against the developers of mobile apps for children. It also asked the agency to add unique mobile device code numbers to the types of data collected from children that require prior parental consent.