SpongeBob disappears from app store after privacy criticism

An advocacy group calls on the FTC to investigate the children's game for violations of online privacy rights and misleading marketing.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
2 min read
SpongeBob Diner Dash was pulled from Apple's app store after a complaint was filed claiming it violated children's online privacy. Nickelodeon

Anyone wanting to download the SpongeBob Diner Dash game from Apple's iTunes app store today is out of luck.

Nickelodeon has removed the app from the store after an advocacy group filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging the game violated children's online privacy rights by collecting their e-mail addresses without parents' permission.

According to the Center for Digital Democracy, which filed the complaint earlier today, cable network Nickelodeon and mobile game-maker PlayFirst are misleadingly marketing the game and are violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

SpongeBob Diner Dash is a free app marketed to children, in which popular cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants must "seat, serve and satisfy even the squirmiest of patrons" and cater to the greedy Mr. Krabs.

Apparently, the game is collecting users' e-mail addresses with promises of sending them a future newsletter. It does not ask for a home address or phone number. According to the New York Times, the app description said it gathered "personal user data as well as nonpersonal user data" and "user data collection is in accordance with applicable law, such as COPPA."

However, the Center for Digital Democracy says that the app does not provide "notice to parents or obtain prior parental consent, as required by the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act." Technically, COPPA only applies to children under 13 years old, so many app makers get around this issue by saying they're targeting older children.

The Center for Digital Democracy's complaint comes on the heels of a FTC report on mobile apps for children that was published last week. The report states that there is "little or no" privacy information available to parents from app vendors or in the Android Google Play and Apple iOS app stores. It also found that "only 20 percent of the apps staff reviewed disclosed any information about the app's privacy practices."

The complaint filed by the Center for Digital Democracy with the FTC will probably not have any legal affect since the FTC does not have processes to file lawsuits. Instead, the complaint acts as letter that is urging the commission to investigate the privacy practices of the SpongeBob Diner Dash game.

"The FTC [needs to] take action to ensure that all companies targeting mobile apps to kids are complying with the law," attorney Laura Moy at Georgetown Law's Institute for Public Representation, which prepared the complaint on behalf of the Center for Digital Democracy, said in a statement.

This isn't the first complaint regarding a children's game that the advocacy group has lodged with the FTC. Last week, the game Mobbles was pulled from both the Apple App and Google Android Play stores after the Center for Digital Democracy filed a similar complaint with the FTC. According to the advocacy group, the geolocation game in which children collect and care for virtual pets, also collected e-mail addresses without parental consent.

CNET contacted Nickelodeon for comment. We'll update the story when we get more information.