Amazon.com has been accused by the Federal Trade Commission of permitting unauthorized in-app purchases by children. The FTC has filed a lawsuit against Amazon in U.S. District Court on behalf of parents affected by the activity of their children. So, apparently we need the government to protect us from our own children. This case exudes a breathtakingly absurd lack of parental accountability. Equally bad is the sycophantic credulous reporting on this case by the state media Apparatchik (in this case USA Today). Their putatively neutral reporting is laced with subliminally opinionated phrases that imply Amazon duped parent into using their children as pawns in some grand scheme. For example, USA Today says Amazon “willingly allowed” kids to make purchases within apps. Notice the clever shift of responsibility here? This phrase implies it was Amazon’s responsibility, not the parents, to be the final arbiter of their children’s behavior. No, Amazon did not “allow” the purchases. The parents allowed the purchases when they handed their unlocked and credit card enabled device over to their child. This is no different than parents handing their child a wad of cash, pointing them in the direction of the toy store and then telling them to be frugal. Meanwhile the parent wanders off somewhere else and then becomes enraged at the toy store when they find out little Johnny spent all his money there.
But, even though it was not Amazon’s responsibility, they (as well as the other two players in this market, Apple and Google) implemented some basic gatekeeping controls to mitigate (yes mitigate, not 100% eliminate all possibility of) such undesirable purchases. They required the entry of the account’s password even on an already unlocked device (the presumption being the child did not know the password but was merely handed an unlocked device by the parent). But you know what? The problem persisted. Which means parents were telling their children the password so they could make some purchases. At this point even if one were to try and make an argument that the companies had some culpability, however tenuous, that argument is completely shattered at this point. If you give your child your password for desirable purchase A then you must know there is nothing stopping them from making undesirable purchase B other than yourself. This is the classic case of the programmer’s conundrum when dealing with user feedback: I want it to work this way, except when I don’t. Stated differently the parent says: I want my child to make purchases I approve of without pestering me for a password every two minutes, except when I don’t, then I want the device to magically know I don’t approve of the purchase.
But even here Amazon did not stop in trying to please the consumer. They responded to complaints and implemented requested controls to try to solve the problem (all without any threat of state action). They implemented dollar value thresholds that required password entry, then they removed the value threshold entirely but still allowed for a short time window where re-entry of the password was not required. This was to avoid the annoyance of trying to buy five things all at once and having to enter your password five times in a row. But of course the problem persisted. Why? Because parents had already given their child the password! Outcomes did not change because the root cause of the problem remained: the parents.
And so now the parents, not recognizing their own culpability, have enlisted the aid of the state to force Amazon (after having already done so to Apple ) to protect them from their own inability to parent. The real loser in this case however is everyone else who uses similar smart-devices. We will have to endure increasingly annoying draconian licks to get to the center of the digital Tootsie Pop.