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EU to Apple, Google: Free game apps? Yeah, right

European regulators fret that free downloads deliver games that aren't actually free to play, and that children are especially vulnerable to costly in-app purchases.

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
2 min read

Apple and Google will be among the organizations to talk to the EU this week about the impact "freemium" apps are having on the industry.

In a statement on Thursday, the EU's European Commission said that it wants to investigate in-app purchases on games that can be downloaded for free. The Commission argues that while games can be downloaded for free, they essentially compel customers to pay for add-ons that bring functionality to the title, and that belies the idea of truly playing a game for "free."

So-called "freemium" games and apps have become increasingly popular in mobile marketplaces. The titles can be downloaded at no cost, but come with a wide range of in-app purchases that help the developer, who might have spent thousands on developing the title, to generate a return on that investment.

According to the EC, one big issue with "free" games and apps is that they often target children, who then spend money to buy in-game downloads.

To start rectifying things, the EC says, it will meet with several consumer watchdog organizations across the EU. Apple, Google, and other companies involved in the distribution of apps will also be asked to comment on the topic.

Apple certainly has some experience in the matter. Last month, it reached a settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission that requires it to refund at least $32 million to consumers over in-app purchases made by children. In that case, the issue wasn't the added costs of "freemium" per se, but rather kids' ability to make in-app purchases without their parents' consent.

When the European conversations take place on Thursday and Friday, the EC will specifically assert that free games "should not mislead consumers about the true costs" and "not contain direct exhortations to children to buy items." The Commission would also like the see the industry stop automatically debiting from on-file credit cards and have developers provide a contact e-mail address in the event there are are any complaints from users.

The EC was quick to note, however, that there has yet to be any action taken, and it's unsure right now whether it will move forward on forcing companies to adhere to those standards.