FTC sues Amazon over in-game purchases by children

A

Online retailer Amazon is accused of hooking millions of dollars from underage users making unauthorized in-app purchases. The Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit Thursday charging that the company willingly allowed kids to set up purchases without the consent of their parents.

Though most were for smaller ammounts, some of the charges ranged as high as $99, and typically were for game weapons, clothes and other virtual bullshit installed on its Kindle Fire gadget.

"Amazon’s in-app system allowed children to incur unlimited charges on their parents’ accounts without permission," FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez wrote in a press release issued by the comission. "Even Amazon's own employees recognized the serious problem its process created. We are seeking refunds for affected parents and a court order to ensure that Amazon gets parents' consent for in-app purchases."

Amazon's in-app purchase system, established in 2011 to help the firm catch up with competitors Apple and Google, was relatively rudimentary and lacked locks or passwords to prevent unuathorized users racking up huge bills. Within a month, internal emails show that Amazon was aware of "problems" that were "clearly causing problems for a large percentage of our customers," according to the FTC's lawsuit.

Amazon only added passwords months later, and did not apply them to purchases of less than $20 for a year. Even then, according to the suit, Amazon did not disclose that doing so once would enable further purchases for more than an hour.

The FTC settled a similar lawsuit with Apple earlier this year, when the company agreed to institute stricter policies and paid $32.5m in restitution. Amazon, informed of the pending lawsuit, said that it had no plans to change its system as Apple had, and would fight the action.

"We have continuously improved our experience since launch, but even at launch, when customers told us their kids had made purchases they didn't want we refunded those purchases," Amazon's associate general counsel wrote in a response to the commission.

Part of the FTC's suit, however, alleges that the refund process itself is intentionally obscure and "rife with deterrents including statements that consumers cannot, in fact, get a refund for in-app charges."

Games aimed at youngsters are at the heart of the controversy, as they are typically free to download and play, only to bombard the user with enticements to pay for the virtual bullshit. The enticements are often clevery designed to "blur the lines between what costs virtual currency and what costs real money," writes the FTC, using visually similar icons and other psychological manipulations to generate unfair and unexpected charges.

Earlier this week, UK regulators ordered Electronic Arts to stop marketing its sleazy mobile game Dungeon Keeper as free-to-play after gamers complained that it was effectively unplayable without in-game paid upgrades.

Jerktech: Silicon Valley's most shameful export

Jerktech is the very apt epithet for the class of "disruptive" startups that sell things that don't belong to them, like parking spots and restaurant reservations, simply raising the prices of them and making access to public resources a factor of your disposable income.

Read the rest

Google plans to launch 180 internet satellites

The $1bn fleet would "extend Internet access to unwired regions of the globe," reports the Wall Street Journal. [via]

Windows Phone 8.1 surprisingly great

Windows Phone 7 was Microsoft's belated entry in the smartphone wars, ushering in cool new design trends without making a huge impact on the business. Windows Phone 8 was a disappointment. But the first major point version is a big surprise, packing all the new features expected in its predecessor: "a magnificent smartphone platform," writes Peter Bright.

The coming "cyberpunk" entertainment war

William Gibson's books often feature big, sinister corporations co-opting near-future technological wonders to uncertain ends. Facebook buying Oculus fits right in there! John Brownlee heralds the coming "cyberpunk war" to be fought by giant multinational corporations, in the future entertainment dystopia you were always promised. [Fast Co]

Find God with TempleOS, a 64-bit operating system for PCs

TempleOS is 100% open-source and 100% free of crufty 32-bit code, but "interpretation is tricky." [via JWZ]

Sonar tools head out in missing jet hunt


US NAVY

Debris sightings have drawn attention to a particular region, but choppy seas and rough waters deny a conclusive discovery. The TPL-25 is a military underwater microphone that could improve our chances of finding the flight data recorder, the "black box" that holds Flight 370's secrets. [Wired]

How to unDRM old iTunes songs

If you have anything in iTunes bought prior to 2009, chances are it's got DRM on it. Here's how to take it off. [Wired]

How to unhook all those apps with access to your data

Nick Bilton shows how to kick forgotten corporate eyes out of your Twitter, Facebook and Google accounts: "it’s time to start deleting." [NYT]

Vine bans sexual content

Twitter's 6-second video-sharing platform, Vine, has banned sexual content. Depictions of "provocative" nudity, sex acts, clothed but "aroused" genitals, and "sexually graphic" artwork or animation is "not a good fit for our community," the company writes. [The Verge]

Tech financiers fight

Financier Carl Icahn takes aim at Silicon Valley capitalist and eBay board member Marc Andreesson, who profited handsomely after eBay sold Skype to his investment group at a marked-down price: "Icahn says that profit came at the expense of eBay shareholders," writes CNN Money, "and is demanding to inspect 'all books and records' associated with the sale to Andreessen's group. Andreessen says that Icahn is lying: "I dispute all accusations."

Executive shakeup begins at the new Microsoft

Kara Swisher learned that some high-ups at Microsoft at leaving the company following the appointment of new CEO Satya Nadella. On one departing exec: "Good for him not to have hung around twiddling his thumbs ... as often happens far too often at Microsoft and elsewhere."

Breathing Machine: Leigh Alexander's memoir of adolescence on the early web

Gen Xers like to complain about not having the flying cars they were promised. But it was the Boomers who were promised flying cars. Unless you're that old, the joke goes, you were promised a cyberpunk dystopia: presently under construction for the Millenials to enjoy.

To kids growing up in the 1990s though— born in an empty space between these "generations" of entertainment marketing—such grand concepts were drowned by the mundane reality of the early web. Too young to be on the pre-AOL net, when it was still cool, but old enough for it to remain a new and strange land, this thinly-sliced cohort experienced a certain yearning bathos, a search for the real in a medium freshly proven otherwise.

In Breathing Machine: A Memoir of Computers, Leigh Alexander captures a powerful scent of what it was like to be born into computer gaming's golden age, to have a taste of a "world bigger than the one you can touch" only to spend adolescence in a world of chatrooms, terrible internet speeds and false frontiers.

Read the rest

Tekken Piano

Mc Cool hooked up a MIDI-capable piano to the control inputs of classic fighting game Tekken, thereby synchronizing the on-screen action and musical performance. Then he recorded video of him doing online battle. He won!
This is the final product of my project for interaction design. Took the whole semester, to get this to work but it was worth it. How it works: The piano sends a Midi-Signal, which is transferred to an arduino. According to the signals, the arduino triggers transistors, which then trigger inputs on a paewang PCB (This is the PCB of an arcadestick). The paewang is connected to an Xbox360 (you can also use it on PS3).
The TekkenPiano [Vimeo]

The Net Neutrality ruling in a nutshell

A précis from the New York Times on what the courts' apparent rejection of FCC network neutrality rules meant, and what happens next.