Is Apple REALLY family-friendly or does it just want you to think it is?

Summary:Could it really be so important to keep every cent that Apple has sent a team of lawyers to fight against refunding a few misleading in-app purchases made by little children?

It's a weird paradox. Apple has gone out of its way to filter adult applications and content from its iOS shelves, presumably to protect our children's sensitive little eyes. And yet, Apple is going to court once again to fight for the company's right to dupe kids into unwittingly spending big bucks inside kid-focused iOS apps.

Of course, there's a lot of money to be made from in-app purchases. According to a chart on Business Insider, just about half of Apple's app revenue comes from in-app purchases. That, by almost any measure, makes Apple's in-app purchase a billion dollar revenue stream.

Some parents want to reduce Apple's in-app take, claiming that at least part of that money was acquired by allowing app makers to trick little kids into spending considerable amounts on virtual purchases.

This all goes back to a class action case from last year. While in-app purchases require a password, Apple used to allow a 15-minute window where -- right after an app was downloaded -- virtual purchases were allowed without a password.

It worked in this particularly scummy way. An app vendor would advertise a free app, say one that lets you feed fish. This might attract the attention of a child, who asks Mommy or Daddy if she can download it.

Mommy and Daddy might have thought they were protected, because they know in-app purchase require passwords. So, let's say Daddy allows his little girl to download an aquarium app. Now, a 15-minute timer starts.

This is where the big bucks were made. Anything offered could be purchased within that 15-minute window without requiring an additional password entry. So if the little girl downloaded the app and wanted fish, or pearls that make fish, or fish food, all the app had to do was convince the kid to tap something and ... boom! ... a very real charge of $375 hit the family's credit card, as Kevin Tofel told it last year.

As it turns out, Apple has since closed that loophole. However, the class action lawsuit continues. Apple has been trying to get the lawsuit thrown out of court, but last month, a District Court judge ruled the case can go to trial.

Let's assign blame, shall we?

Blame the app makers

First, we need to assign a whole pile of blame to the scummy app makers who figured out they could make bank by suckering kids into buying virtual goods right as they enter the app.

Sure, the argument could be made that adults download or approve app downloads, but when these app makers made apps with cutesy little kid themes, you know they were very well aware of who their audience was.

No matter how you slice it, it's a predatory move.

Blame Apple

Next, let's look at Apple. Sure, Apple didn't go out and evangelize developers to steal money from kids. But they did design a system with a relatively measurable vulnerability.

Apple is arguing its astonishingly long terms of service protect it from this sort of litigation (have you tried reading that monstrosity on a smartphone?). The fact is, those terms and conditions are used -- and have always been used by sneaky lawyers -- to obscure a whole pile of predatory rules that no one in their right mind would ever agree with, if they were presented in some truly consumable fashion.

Interestingly, even with a terms of service almost rivaling the new health care act in obfuscation and length, the judge in California pretty much slapped Apple down and told the company to prepare for court.

So, perhaps it wasn't truly, legally Apple's fault (although at least one judge seems to disagree), but it was certainly Apple's fault technically. One could further argue it was also Apple's fault for hiding such important information in the small print.

Blame the parents

How could this possibly be the parents' fault? To be honest, I still don't understand how you would think giving a little kid an iPhone or an iPad is a good idea. When I was a kid, my parents required that pretty much everything they gave me to play with had to be built to military specifications for indestructibility. Otherwise I'd wind up breaking it (or taking it apart to see how it worked).

But let's assume that parents today feel safe giving kids little $200-$500 glass smartphones and tablets to play with. Could they have taken more responsibility for the in-app purchases?

To some degree, yes. Every one of us should read those terms and conditions, although I'm sure most of us don't. More to the point, I would recommend that parents don't just let kids download apps, but be willing to spend at least the first half hour with the kid, exploring the app together.

Of course, I'm not a parent, so what do I know?

So, what about that porn paradox?

Here's fundamentally where Apple's going about this thing the wrong way. And it's all about marketing, not the law.

If Apple cares so much about making their devices family friendly, they should stand behind that claim.

The bottom-line is that the parents in this class action suit trusted Apple to provide a safe platform. When an aspect of that platform turned out to be unsafe, and, in fact, predatory, Apple didn't rush to the aid of the parents. Instead, Apple pointed to its terms of service and walked away.

This is where Apple dropped the ball. Furthermore, by trying to get the case thrown out of court, Apple is again saying it's not willing to put its billions where its mouth is.

I mean, seriously, isn't Apple rolling around in so many billions, it doesn't know what to do with it all? Could it really be so important to keep every cent of it that they have to send a team of lawyers out to fight against refunding a few misleading in-app purchases made by little children?

Apple wants people to think it's family friendly, but apparently draws the line at being friendly to families.

Topics: Apple, Apps

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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