CDD Charges Mobile Game Company with Violation of COPPA, Urges FTC Action--While Kids Capture Virtual Pets, Mobbles Captures Personal Information from Children

Washington, DC: The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) filed a complaint today with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) calling for an investigation of and action against the Mobbles Corporation for operating the mobile application Mobbles in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Mobbles, a game involving virtual pets, is directed at children under age 13. It collects personal information from children without providing any notice to parents (nor even attempting to obtain verifiable parental consent), as required by law.

Available since May 2012 on iTunes for the iPhone and from the Google Play store for Android devices, Mobbles has ranked among the top 100 grossing “Entertainment” iTunes apps in 24 countries, and among the top 10 in 10 countries. Between 10,000 and 50,000 users downloaded Mobbles over the last 30 days in the Google Play store alone. An elaborate, location-based game that involves capturing, collecting, trading, and caring for virtual pets, “Mobbles” raises a number of privacy and child-safety issues, CDD’s complaint explains.

First, because Mobbles is a location-based game, it uses smart-phone technology both to determine and to share the precise physical location of children playing the game. Second, because users must be within 54 yards of a Mobble to “catch” it, the game encourages children to wander around at all hours to get close enough to capture a particular Mobble (some of which are only available at night). Third, through its newsletter sign-up and registration required for pet trading, Mobbles collects children’s email addresses and other contact information without parental notice or consent. And, finally, although many of the game’s items are available free (as is the game itself), Mobbles encourages the expenditure of actual funds (via credit-card accounts) to acquire virtual items that are only available for purchase.

As CDD’s complaint makes clear, Mobbles violates COPPA’s requirement that any online service directed at children provide notice “of what information it collects from children, how it uses such information, and its disclosure practices for such information,” and obtain parental consent before collecting personal information from a child. Mobbles provides no privacy policies nor does it make any attempt to obtain parental consent before collecting a child’s physical address, online contact information, or the online contact information of a child’s friends.

“This case underscores the urgent need to update the Federal Trade Commission’s rules on children’s online privacy,” said CDD Executive Director Jeff Chester. “The use of persistent identifiers on mobile devices and other platforms must be covered under the proposed new COPPA regulations.”

“By its very design, the Mobbles app takes unfair advantage of children’s developmental vulnerabilities, and even potentially threatens their personal safety,” commented Dr. Kathryn Montgomery, Professor of Communication at American University, who spearheaded the campaign for COPPA in the 1990’s. “This complaint provides a glimpse into a much larger, rapidly growing children’s mobile market, in which companies are unleashing all of the available techniques for targeting kids, including geo-location, instant rewards, and in-phone purchases. In the process, these companies are capturing a wide range of personal information available on smart phones and other mobile devices. Such practices not only violate the law, but also fly in the face of industry promises to protect children’s privacy in the digital media marketplace.”

CDD’s filing was prepared by the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center. Georgetown Law Student Jessica Wang, who researched and drafted the request, urged the FTC “to act promptly to stop mobile apps such as Mobbles from pinpointing children’s physical location, sending them direct messages, and contacting kids’ friends without their parents’ knowledge and permission.” Noting that on Monday the FTC released a report documenting that a large percentage of the most popular mobile apps for kids are collecting information without parental notice and consent, Angela Campbell, Director of the Institute for Public Representation, urged the FTC to include Mobbles as one of the apps it planned to investigate.