Buying the In-App Hype

Image of an Apple iPhone's settings screen with the "restrictions" item highlighted.

One of the ABC's lead stories today is a redux of in-app purchase consternation, back in the spotlight because the ACCC joined a consortium of overseas consumer affairs bodies in wringing their hands and sucking air through their teeth.

For the unfamiliar, in-app purchases are where users of smartphones such as Apple's iPhone and Google's Android powered devices can purchase additional functionality for an app from within the app itself (rather than from the standard online marketplaces the apps come from).  Particularly in the spotlight are apps which have no initial purchase price, but allow purchases inside them making their ostensibly free price tag a little more complicated than that.  Within that focus are apps which either are or appear to be designed to encourage children to complete in app purchases without their supervising adults' knowledge or consent (but with their money).

It's certainly the case that some or even a lot of these apps are shonky.  The amounts for in-app purchases are quite small so they may create the impression to a child that ramifications of their behaviour will be negligible.  What is purchased is usually also trivial and arguably worthless; the apps that seem most exploitative are usually simple garden, farm, baby or other simulation/role play games and the in-app buys are often accessorising or purchasing "boosts" to game activity like growing plants (e.g. "bag of fertiliser") - these accelerate developments that would occur anyway.  

Fortunately for parents and regulators this entire episode of consumer affairs concern can be set aside.  While the developers of simple apps that lure children (or less switched-on adults) into buying things they didn't want or need may be nefarious, they are able to be defeated at every turn simply and effectively.  Android devices allow the setting of a PIN which is required for in-app purchases and Apple devices have similar restrictions, and Windows Mobile is the same.  Any device can be restricted, and a host of other services from other providers could be used to control the behaviour such as credit card debit notifications from a parent's bank, or monitoring of receipts that are delivered to the account holder's email address.  Of course then there's the non-technological responses; using prepaid gift-card credit only instead of a linked credit card with a multi-thousand dollar limit puts a ceiling on maximum costs, Asking your child what they are doing with the mobile device and understanding what behaviours they may be engaging in which cost the device owner, the parent, money can also ensure that the situation doesn't get out of control.

In-app purchase scamminess is unique in that a little engagement and awareness actually defeats the scam.  I can think of few other scams that actually have an off switch in the settings of your phone,    We don't need the ACCC to intervene, much less an international consortium of similar panic merchant consumer affairs bodies.  Thankfully the ACCC is baring its traditional teeth and their threat is currently that they "haven't ruled out enforcement action" - against bodies which are incorporated overseas and outside the reach of Australian law.

It'll be interesting to see if this one unfolds into another regulator versus corporate showdown like the ACCC's history of failed actions against perceived wrongdoing or if parents educate themselves into stopping the scam in the settings menu first.  I suppose it's too much to ask for a hybrid approach where the ACMA conduct an education campaign including a couple of prime-time TV ads advising parents that apps, including free ones, can cost money and you should consult your device's manual to make sure the settings are how you want them. A regulatory response that would be cheap, quick, effective and popular.  Crazy talk.


Update:  it's possible there are multiple Simone de Kretsers in Australia but LinkedIn lists the profile of the ABC's upset mother whose teenager cost her hundreds as a telecommunications company CEO with a bachelor of Technology majoring in Information Systems Management.  Maybe this is all harder than I thought.