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"Free" apps - the OFT investigates at last!

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As a parent of a young child who is already an expert at using an iPad, I am pleased to hear that the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has launched an investigation into online games which encourage children to make “in-app” purchases.

An “in-app” purchase is a purchase of additional content, features or functionality in an online application (app) such as a game. Typically, the game app itself is offered free to the consumer, with revenue generated from in-app purchases. In recent months, there have been a number of media reports of children running up huge bills when playing games they thought were free including a five-year-old boy who racked up a bill of £1,700 playing a “free” game on an iPad.

The OFT is now investigating whether children are being made aware of the full cost before the game app is downloaded, as failure to do so is potentially an unfair commercial practice under the Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. It is also examining whether such games include “direct exhortations” to children which are banned under the Regulations. The deadline for submissions to the OFT is 28 June 2013 and the OFT will publish the outcome of its investigation by October 2013.

Many people may argue that it is up to parents to supervise their children adequately and, whilst I would agree to this to a certain extent, the prices of some “in-app” purchases are extortionate and it is only fair that game users are made aware of those costs before they start playing.