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UK finalizes criteria for in-game ads and purchases

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The U.K. Office of Fair Trading published its finalized set of guidelines today for online and mobile games featuring in-app purchase options, giving game developers a deadline of April 1 to ensure their games comply with consumer protection laws.

The guidelines (available in PDF form) state games must notify consumers upfront about any possible associated costs, including in-app advertisements and purchase options, and if the app utilizes users' personal data or shares it with third parties. In-game payments cannot and should not be authorized by anyone other than the account holder or without the holder's informed consent, and according to the document, failure to comply with these principles risks enforcement action by the OFT.

The Citizens Advice Bureau has also incorporated OFT's guidelines into its instructions for parents on how they can police children's use of apps and ensure they are not influenced to make in-app purchases or have access to them without parental consent. The OFT suggests parents turn on password protection for in-app purchases and check apps beforehand for any buying options. The organization also suggests parents routinely check apps after updates to be aware if purchase options are added down the line.

Last April, following a U.K. survey which showed children's unauthorized in-app purchases could be raising phone bills, the OFT launched an investigation into free-to-play mobile and web games to determine if children were "unfairly pressured or encouraged" to make in-app purchases. According to the OFT, the investigation has been met with "positive engagement" from the U.K. games industry and "significant improvements to its practices" have been made since it began.

"The online and apps based games industry has already made significant improvements during our consultation process," said OFT chief executive Clive Maxwell in a press statement. "But it still needs to do more to protect children and treat its customers fairly. Our principles make clear the type of practices that games makers and platform operators should avoid.

"Parents and carers have an important role to help protect their child and their bank balance," he added. "Our advice is that parents check their device settings, play their child's games themselves and read the game's description online."

In September, the OFT released a report warning game developers to not target children with in-app purchase options and ads. The organization also released a set of criteria that game makers should follow to create revenue systems that are not "misleading, aggressive or otherwise unfair."

The OFT is not the only government organization focused on the crackdown of in-app purchase and advertising systems. More recently, Apple announced it would settle a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission over in-app purchases by paying out a minimum of $32.5 million. The FTC alleged that Apple had failed to properly inform users — notably parents — that having their mobile devices remember their App Store password was enabling children to make unauthorized in-app purchases.