CARY – From “privacy violations” to what it called illegal “dark patterns,” the Federal Trade Commission on Monday hammered Epic Games for policies and actions involving its popular Fortnite game. Here are the details of the violations as spelled out by the FTC:
In a complaint filed in federal court, the FTC alleged that Epic violated the COPPA Rule by collecting personal information from children under 13 who played Fortnite, a child-directed online service, without notifying their parents or obtaining their parents’ verifiable consent. Epic also violated the FTC Act’s prohibition against unfair practices by enabling real-time voice and text chat communications for children and teens by default. Specifically, the FTC alleged that Epic:
- Violated COPPA by Failing to Notify Parents, Obtain Consent: The FTC alleged that Epic was aware that many children were playing Fortnite—as shown through surveys of Fortnite users, the licensing and marketing of Fortnite toys and merchandise, player support and other company communications—and collected personal data from children without first obtaining parents’ verifiable consent. The company also required parents who requested that their children’s personal information be deleted to jump through unreasonable hoops, and sometimes failed to honor such requests.
- Default settings harm children and teens: Epic’s settings enable live on-by-default text and voice communications for users. The FTC alleges that these default settings, along with Epic’s role in matching children and teens with strangers to play Fortnite together, harmed children and teens. Children and teens have been bullied, threatened, harassed, and exposed to dangerous and psychologically traumatizing issues such as suicide while on Fortnite.
Epic employees expressed concern about its default settings. As early as 2017, Epic employees urged the company to change the default settings to require users to opt in for voice chat, citing concern about the impact on children in particular. Despite this and reports that children had been harassed, including sexually, while playing the game, the company resisted turning off the default settings. And while it eventually added a button allowing users to turn voice chat off, Epic made it difficult for users to find, according to the complaint.
In addition to paying the record civil penalty, which goes to the U.S. Treasury, for violating the COPPA Rule, the proposed federal court order will prohibit Epic from enabling voice and text communications for children and teens unless parents (of users under 13) or teenage users (or their parents) provide their affirmative consent through a privacy setting. Epic must delete personal information previously collected from Fortnite users in violation of the COPPA Rule’s parental notice and consent requirements unless the company obtains parental consent to retain such data or the user identifies as 13 or older through a neutral age gate. In addition, Epic must establish a comprehensive privacy program that addresses the problems identified in the FTC’s complaint, and obtain regular, independent audits.
The Commission voted 4-0 to refer the civil penalty complaint and proposed federal order to the Department of Justice. The DOJ filed the complaint and stipulated order in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Commissioner Christine S. Wilson issued a separate statement.
NOTE: The Commission authorizes the filing of a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the named defendant is violating or is about to violate the law and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. Stipulated orders have the force of law when approved and signed by the District Court judge.
Illegal Dark Patterns
In a separate administrative complaint, the FTC alleged that Epic used dark patterns to trick players into making unwanted purchases and let children rack up unauthorized charges without any parental involvement. The complaint alleged that Epic:
- Used dark patterns to trick users into making purchases: The company has deployed a variety of dark patterns aimed at getting consumers of all ages to make unintended in-game purchases. Fortnite’s counterintuitive, inconsistent, and confusing button configuration led players to incur unwanted charges based on the press of a single button. For example, players could be charged while attempting to wake the game from sleep mode, while the game was in a loading screen, or by pressing an adjacent button while attempting simply to preview an item. These tactics led to hundreds of millions of dollars in unauthorized charges for consumers.
- Charged account holders without authorization: Children and other users who play Fortnite can purchase in-game content such as cosmetics and battle passes using Fortnite’s V-Bucks. Up until 2018, Epic allowed children to purchase V-Bucks by simply pressing buttons without requiring any parental or card holder action or consent. Some parents complained that their children had racked up hundreds of dollars in charges before they realized Epic had charged their credit card without their consent. The FTC has brought similar claims against companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Google for billing consumers millions of dollars for in-app purchases made by children while playing mobile app games without obtaining their parents’ consent.
- Blocked access to purchased content: The FTC alleged that Epic locked the accounts of customers who disputed unauthorized charges with their credit card companies. Consumers whose accounts have been locked lose access to all the content they have purchased, which can total thousands of dollars. Even when Epic agreed to unlock an account, consumers were warned that they could be banned for life if they disputed any future charges.
Epic ignored more than one million user complaints and repeated employee concerns that “huge” numbers of users were being wrongfully charged. In fact, Epic’s changes only made the problem worse, the FTC alleged. Using internal testing, Epic purposefully obscured cancel and refund features to make them more difficult to find.