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European Union meeting with Apple, Google, others on in-app purchase concerns

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European officials are meeting with Apple, Google and other organizations this week to discuss potential solutions to the problem of free-to-play apps that mislead consumers about in-app purchases, the European Commission announced today.

The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, acknowledged in a press release that the mobile app market has become a major segment of the region's economy. But according to consumer watchdog groups in countries such as France, Denmark and the U.K., too much of the industry's success has been built on a foundation of free-to-play apps that often mislead their users, causing them to spend money without realizing it. Such misleading programs are known as "bait apps," and one year ago, Apple settled a class-action lawsuit over unauthorized in-app purchases made by minors with an offer of cash and iTunes credit.

In light of the outcry from consumer protection organizations, the European Commission is holding meetings Feb. 27-28 with government officials from across Europe, as well as companies like Apple and Google, to figure out how to proceed. The European Commission will ask app makers to present solutions to the issue.

"misleading consumers is clearly the wrong business model"

"For the [apps] sector to deliver on its potential consumers must have confidence in new products. Misleading consumers is clearly the wrong business model and also goes against the spirit of EU rules on consumer protection," said Viviane Reding, vice president and Justice Commissioner of the European Commission, in a press release today.

"The European Commission will expect very concrete answers from the app industry to the concerns raised by citizens and national consumer organizations."

During the meetings, attendees will discuss four major issues. If a game is advertised as "free," it "should not mislead consumers about the true costs involved," according to the press release. Games shouldn't directly encourage children to make in-app purchases (or get adults to do it for them). Apps must let users know about payment setups and shouldn't automatically charge people by default until they authorize those purchases. And apps should contain an email address where users can submit questions or complaints.

Criticism previously aimed at the gaming industry includes a report released by the U.K. Office of Fair Trading last fall, in which the agency advised app developers against targeting children with in-app purchases. Last month, the office published stricter guidelines for makers of apps that feature in-app purchases.