Apple asks for passwords for in-app purchases

Mar 14, 2011
Tech

It might have taken parental outrage and threats of a Federal Trade Commission investigation, but Apple has changed its policy on in-app purchases: In iOS 4.3, all in-app purchases now require users to enter their Apple ID passwords. The change is in contrast to the old policy, in which Apple users could input their Apple […]

It might have taken parental outrage and threats of a Federal Trade Commission investigation, but Apple has changed its policy on in-app purchases: In iOS 4.3, all in-app purchases now require users to enter their Apple ID passwords.

The change is in contrast to the old policy, in which Apple users could input their Apple ID passwords once into their iPhones and iPads, then continue to make purchases for 15 minutes without having to re-enter the password. The window still applies to app purchases made in the App Store on the iPad and iPhone — meaning if you download multiple apps during that 15 minutes, you only have to input a password the first time — but in-app purchases no longer apply to that system.

It’s a good answer to an increasing problem Apple has been facing, one which has garnered significant media attention. In-app purchases are a popular way to run “freemium” mobile games. Those are games that are free to download and free to play, but which include purchasable in-game items that can help a player to advance more quickly.

Apple was running into problems over a number of these games that are specifically aimed at children. Capcom’s Smurfs’ Village was one that got the most attention. It included in-app purchases for items called “smurf berries” that helped a player perform in-game actions more quickly than they might without making the purchases. The problem arose when parents started to find iTunes bills ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars — many complained that the 15-minute in-app purchase window was allowing kids to buy things without their parents’ consent or knowledge.

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A report from the Wall Street Journal states that Apple rolled out the change with iOS 4.3, the newest version of its mobile operating system, which was released last week. A spokeswoman for Apple also mentioned in the story that iOS devices contain parental controls that would have allowed for the same safeguards against inadvertent in-app purchases, but it would seem that few parents actually knew about them.

Several politicians had weighed in on Apple’s in-app purchasing protocol, calling for an investigation about the ease with which huge bills could be incurred and whether Apple and game makers were marketing to children with such purchases.

According to some stories, Apple has been issuing refunds for parents who complain about mistaken purchases (as well as a few other people), but officially there’s no refund policy for the App Store. With the change made to in-app purchases in iOS 4.3, some experts speculated to WSJ that Apple might be out of the woods — although the upgrade in software isn’t mandatory for mobile owners, and so the apparent danger of accidentally buying bushels of smurf berries and winding up trading lots of real cash for fake goods is still present.

Even so, the protection renders a lot of the arguments against in-app purchases, including the idea that they market to children and are deceptive, more or less moot. It’s hard for a purchase to be deceptive if it requires you to verify your identity to make it, and if children have their parents’ passwords, it’s not really the fault of Apple or an iPhone game developer that the kids are making fraudulent purchases.

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We’ll have to wait and see if the change satisfies the FTC and the politicians who wanted to hold Apple and developers responsible for those purchases.

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Phil Hornshaw

Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer, editor and author living in Los Angeles, dividing his time between playing video games, playing video games on his cell phone, and writing about playing video games. He’s also the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel, which attempts to mix time travel pop culture with some semblance of science, as well as tips on the appropriate means of riding dinosaurs. Check out his profile.

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