EU starts clamp down on misleading in-app purchases

“Free” apps that mislead consumers are being targeted by the European Union as part of a consultation that has been launched to investigate the continent’s multi-billion pound app market.

Related: App developers given two months to comply with consumer protection law

The European Commission is holding talks with the industry, policymakers and consumer protection authorities today and tomorrow in order to try and devise a clearer list of guidelines over games being offered in the EU.

"Misleading consumers is clearly the wrong business model and also goes against the spirit of EU rules on consumer protection," said the EU's justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, according to Reuters. "The European Commission [EC] will expect very concrete answers from the app industry to the concerns raised by citizens and national consumer organizations."

The EU has taken issue with games that are labelled as “free to download” when they aren’t actually “free to play” due to the purchases that need to be made in the app, which can be taken automatically from a registered credit card.

Over half of the games available in the EU are labelled “free” when they actually carry hidden costs and it has led to a glut of high profile cases of children running up huge bills on credit cards.

Apple, for one, was made to refund customers some $32.5 million [£19.5 million] over unauthorised in-app purchases made by children in a case that went back to 2011 when an eight-year-old ran up a $1,400 [£840] bill on Capcom’s Smurfs’ Village game.

The UK beat the EU to the punch when it comes to targeting in-app purchases with the Office of Fair Trading launching its own probe into whether app publishers were deliberately targeting children with hidden in-app purchases. It ended with the OFT devising a list of guidelines that app publishers must adhere to within the next two months.

Related: Apple refunds parents of five-year-old who racked up £1,700 in iTunes charges

Apps are big business in Europe, much like everywhere else in the world, and the EC estimates that the market will be worth €63 billion [£51.7 billion] in the next five years and a list of tighter restrictions seems almost certain to comes from the consultation.