Apple Relabels Its 'Free' Apps to Satisfy Regulators

After almost a year, Apple has given European regulators the changes and concessions they demanded to protect consumers against unauthorized online app purchases.

Apple Apps

Apple has stopped tagging apps as "free" in its app store to comply with requests from European regulators, who have been actively fighting labels on apps that say they are free but ultimately can involve in-app purchases.

Apple has relabeled the formerly "free" apps with a new label that says "get," which still allows consumers to download them but clarifies that they are not necessarily free for all functions and options, according to a Nov. 20 report by The Christian Science Monitor.

"The [European Commission] says that the 'free' labeling misleads consumers, since small transactions for power-ups and add-ons can quickly pile up," the article said. "The EC is trying to get app sellers to stop inadvertent in-app purchases."

The controversy began in February when the European Commission (EC) began looking into the way that apps were labeled online after receiving many complaints from consumers about being billed for charges even though specific apps were free to download, according to an earlier eWEEK report. Apple and Google had meetings with the EC to discuss the issue and Google made changes earlier this summer in its approach to apps distribution in its online Google Play Store.

The EC had told Apple and Google that labeling apps as free and then charging consumers to use extra features was problematic. Customers were often not fully aware that they were spending money because their credit cards were charged by default, even though the apps had been labeled as free. The EC said earlier that it had received complaints on the matter from all over Europe. The problem typically involved children who downloaded and played games and then used extra features without knowing that there would be charges to get them.

The FTC has also come down on Apple for not being clearer about in-app purchases. In January, Apple agreed to pay $32.5 million to settle a complaint with the FTC that said Apple had violated the FTC Act by failing to make clear to parents that by entering their Apple ID to download an app, they were also leaving open a 15-minute window during which kids could make in-app purchases. In one of the more hair-raising examples offered, a woman said that her daughter had spent $2,600 playing an app called "Tap Pet Hotel."

Google has already instigated a number of changes since this summer when the word "free" was dropped in connection with games that contain in-app purchases, according to an earlier eWEEK report. In addition, new guidelines for developers were created to clarify European Union laws and consumer protections, while changes were being made to Android default settings so that authorization is required before every in-app purchase, unless the consumer actively changes the setting.

Earlier this year, the EC had chastised Apple for failing to make changes to help prevent children from making inadvertent purchases within mobile apps or parents from receiving unexpected bills. In July, the EC joined forces with national authorities to address the issue and seek tangible results to solve the problem.

In December 2013, the commission communicated certain points to Apple, Google and the Interactive Software Federation of Europe that games advertised as "free" shouldn't be misleading about the costs involved, games shouldn't encourage children to make purchases, payment arrangements should be communicated clearly and not debited through default settings, and apps should provide clearly stated email addresses to which consumers can communicate questions or complaints.