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Apple facing class action suit over children's app bills

Once upon a time, you would go to a store, pay for a game on a disc in a box, and take it home to install it on your computer. These days, you can still do that if you really want to, of course, but with the advent of mobile gaming and digital downloads, the way that many of us discover, purchase and use software and play games has changed considerably, compared with times gone by.

Now, we can pick up the latest games almost instantly on our phones; some of the best and most enjoyable titles are often available free of charge, supported by ads; and, even once you’ve got the game, it’s possible to expand its potential through in-app purchases that can extend gameplay and introduce fun new features. But not everyone is celebrating these developments.

A group of parents in the United States believes that Apple has failed in its responsibility to impose proper restrictions on in-app purchases for children, accusing the company of exploiting the addictive nature of games designed to appeal to kids, and making it all too easy for them to purchase add-on items, without parental authorisation. One example cited is that of the game ‘Smurfs Village’, which invites players to purchase additional ‘smurfberries’.  

In the Apple ecosystem, in-app purchases are billed to the credit card and iTunes account associated with the device, and a series of incidents in America and the United Kingdom have seen parents’ accounts accumulating hundreds of dollars in charges from such purchases. Now, The Telegraph reports that a US federal judge has granted permission to the group of parents to proceed with a class action suit against Apple, having rejected the company's petition for the case to be dismissed.

Apple had requested that the judge consider the controls and restrictions that currently exist in iOS, which enable parents to limit in-app purchases. The parents contended that these controls have only recently been improved, and that they were previously inadequate.

The court filing by the parents noted that the iTunes App Store is filled with games and other apps that clearly and unambiguously target children. “Many such games are designed to induce purchases,” they claim. “These games are highly addictive, designed deliberately to be so, and tend to compel children playing them to purchase large quantities of game currency, amounting to as much as $100 per purchase, or more.”

As the class suit has just been filed, this is of course just the beginning of the process; it’ll be a while longer before we find out which side gets its happy ending.  

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