Two lawmakers sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Wednesday urging the agency to investigate the Google Play app store for potentially violating children’s privacy.

Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) seek to determine whether Google Play violated Section 5 of the FTC Act. “New research suggests that Google misleadingly markets children’s apps as compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) despite evidence that many of those apps illegally track children’s behavior and share their personal information without consent,” Markey and Castor wrote in the joint letter.

“The FTC must use its full authority to protect the interests of children, many of whom are increasingly online during the coronavirus pandemic,” the letter continued. “Therefore, we urge you to investigate whether the Google Play Store has engaged in unfair and deceptive practices that mislead parents and harm kids.”

The letter follows a similar complaint that was lodged by the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood a few weeks prior, which spelled out a series of similar concerns. “Google has changed how it treats apps intended for children but has not fixed the problem that many children’s apps are not complying with COPPA,” the March 31 letter states.

From a legal and compliance perspective, strictly based on COPPA’s clear definitions and remedies as it applies to online operators, the request to investigate Google Play Store “has weight,” says Cynthia Burke, compliance manager at Capsule8. COPPA and the FTC’s COPPA Rule require that commercial Websites, online services, and mobile apps directed to children under age 13, or with actual knowledge that a user is under 13, must obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting, using, or disclosing personal information from children.

This is not the first time such a request has been made. In 2018, experts and lawmakers called on the FTC to investigate Google Play for potential violations of consumer protection and privacy laws, which the FTC at the time decided not to pursue. 

Mary Hildebrand, a partner and chair of the privacy and cyber-security group at law firm Lowenstein Sandler, says what’s different this time around is the new Democratic administration in the White House, with corresponding changes in key federal agencies. “It seems likely that [Markey and Castor] are counting on a shift in FTC priorities, and the impact of Democrats’ more regulation-friendly approach,” she says.

“The agency has exercised its considerable authority to enforce COPPA on many other occasions, and I’m personally optimistic this letter will trigger an investigation to ensure that Google and its app developers are playing by the rules,” Hildebrand adds.

Emily Tabatabai, a partner at law firm Orrick, similarly notes the letters are timely. “Given the FTC’s recent focus on COPPA and EdTech, particularly with respect to the increased use of child-directed educational apps and services during the pandemic, this call to action by Senator Markey and Rep. Castor could certainly help tip the scale toward investigation,” she says.

“At a minimum, I expect the staff to pursue an internal inquiry into the allegations to determine whether there is grounds to proceed with an investigation,” Tabatabai adds. “The staff may even reach out to the company for an informal discussion about the issues raised in the letter. Of course, informal inquiries and active investigations are nonpublic, so we may not know how the FTC decides to proceed unless or until the investigation (if one exists) results in the FTC filing a complaint.”