Android Play Store Content Ratings are Almost Useless – Too Many Apps are Indiscriminately Rated for ‘Everyone’

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A Mobile Casino Slot Machine App Rated ‘Everyone’

The app shown in the screenshot is Slot Machine Free Casino Slots, a free app on the Android Play Store. I am starting off with this offender because it highlights the severity of the issue.

This app is a slots machine simulator. Link to a YouTube trailer is here. Social features include logging into a Facebook or SOFTGAMES (game publisher) account. You can spend real money just like you can at a real slot machine. The part about gambling is where it is a gray area, because clearly this facilities real gambling and turns your smartphone into a mobile casino, as it allows users to spend real currency, but the app store is full of apps like this. The app at least should be rated with a ‘Medium maturity’ content rating.

Here’s a screenshot of their mobile web app showing cost of the virtual currency purchase screen, where Google will gladly take your money via Google Wallet:

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What are Content Ratings for the Play Store?

A version for developers is available here, and here’s the section specific for gambling:

Gambling
Apps that facilitate real gambling are not permitted in Google Play. Apps with gambling themes or simulated gambling must be rated medium maturity or high maturity.

The Play Store content ratings guide is quoted below:

Everyone

Applications in this category should not collect user’s location data or contain objectionable material. Applications should not share user content or include social features.
Low maturity

Applications in this category may include instances of mild cartoon or fantasy violence or other potentially offensive content. Applications may collect user location data for the purpose of providing location specific information or otherwise improving the user experience, but should not share the data with other users. Applications may include some social features but should not focus on allowing users to find and communicate with each other.
Medium maturity

Applications in this category may include sexual references; intense fantasy or realistic violence; profanity or crude humor; references to drug, alcohol and tobacco use; social features and simulated gambling. Applications may collect user location data for the purpose of sharing or publishing with the user’s consent.
High maturity

Applications in this category may focus on or include frequent instances of sexual and suggestive content; graphic violence; social features; simulated gambling; and strong alcohol, tobacco and drug references. Applications may collect user location data for the purpose of sharing or publishing with the user’s consent.

Google’s Blind Eye to Real Gambling in the Play Store

Google’s position so far is to allow apps like this, as I am not aware of any app takedowns because of faciliting real gambling in apps, despite explicitly allowing gambling in the submission policies. Apple is different in that it allows for real gambling apps only certain geographic areas, and all apps are subject to approval before launch.

At the very least, Google is protecting themselves by making sure that developers are agreeing to the guidelines set out by Google, so it is ultimately not Google’s responsibility to the problem of gambling in the play store.

When apps are submitted, developers will see the following in order to consent to Play Store guidelines:

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Even ‘Top Developers’ Offend – Case in Point: Yahoo

Moving on from gambling, let’s talk about private user data.

Yahoo has many apps under its portfolio. But I’ve discovered that they have been sloppy at keeping content ratings relevant for some of their apps, particularly for their Fantasy sports apps. They currently have 14 apps published.

The Yahoo Fantasy Basketball and Yahoo Fantasy Hockey apps are rated ‘Everyone’. But they both contain social messaging features that should automatically put it in the ‘Medium maturity’ category.

Here’s a look at the Play Store page:

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The screenshots even show social messaging features:

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If you go to Yahoo Sports and view their terms and conditions, they clearly state that they will collect user personal information:

COLLECTION OF PERSONAL INFORMATION
By signing up for Fantasy Basketball, you agree to Yahoo!’s use of your personal information as described in Yahoo!’s Privacy Policy, located at http://privacy.yahoo.com/privacy/us/sports/.

Apps Rated as ‘Everyone’ Collect User Personal Data, Including your Location – Case in Point: Electronic Arts Inc.

Here’s an example offender of putting apps in the ‘Everyone’ category – by Electronic Arts. Currently the 3rd top paid app in the Play Store. Need for Speed™ Most Wanted is rated as an ‘Everyone’ app, but has a terms and conditions of the app clearly states the application developer will collect your personal information, which is supposed to be non-personally identifiable, including your location:

2. Consent to Use of Data. To facilitate product support, product development and improvement as well as other services to you, you agree that EA or other third parties may use cookies, web beacons and other analytic technologies to collect, use, store and transmit non-personally identifiable technical and related information regarding your mobile device (including unique device id or UDID), IP address, geo-location, device make and model, operating system, software and applications, including application usage data. In addition, EA and/or third parties may collect, store, use and transmit non-personally identifiable game play data, session data, browser identifiers, carrier information well as online and Application usage metrics, statistics and/or analytics. Data collected by third parties will be collected, used, stored, transferred and disclosed pursuant to the third party’s privacy policy. See Appendix A for a non-exclusive list of third parties that may collect data via this Application. Appendix A includes both analytics companies and ad networks discussed in more detail in Section 3, below and includes URL’s for those third parties’ privacy policies and opt outs (if applicable). For data collected by or transferred to EA, EA may collect, use, store, share and transmit this information to third parties in a form that does not personally identify you in accordance with EA’s Privacy Policy located at http://privacy.ea.com.

Here’s a screenshot of the app in the Play Store.

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Electronic Arts is one of the largest publisher of games in the Play Store, yet a quick look at other games in the portfolio shows the same problem, most if not all of their games fall under the same terms and conditions, but yet are all have a content rating of ‘Everyone’.

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Google Doesn’t Seem to Care Much

There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to the content rating of apps on an Android device. Here’s what it takes to view the content rating of an app on an Android device. Google has hidden this information underneath the ‘Description’ tab.

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The main way to report apps is through the Play Store, but this only works through the Android app, at the bottom of the app page as follows. You inexplicably cannot do this in a web browser:

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Google’s primary source of revenue is advertisement and selling your data, but I really believe that we should expect better of Google for this specific issue.

As a side-note, the Play Store’s Google+ integration is a content rating breach, because messages are posted publicly to the application’s profile. With app developers responding back to users, it is effectively a social messaging system. You can’t flag the Play Store as inappropriate though.

Ending Remarks

There are countless examples of apps that will collect your personal data, but how many of them are rated appropriately so you can keep yourself from using these apps?

For now, setting the content filter in the Play Store app is almost useless. Apps rated for ‘Everyone’ can and will collect your personal data, or even facilitate gambling.

If your children own an Android smartphone, there isn’t really simple solution for stopping them from using the Play Store and being exposed to inappropriate content in apps and personal data collection.

Currently, there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to check for offending apps from Google. I recommend this free third-party app I came across recently – BitDefender Clueful. Here’s a link to their app on the Play Store. The app analyzes the list of installed applications on your device and shows you how your private data is being utilized.

The strange thing is that they haven’t published a privacy policy for their application yet, but BitDefender historically does not sell collected information to third-party. By using Clueful, you do end up transmitting some data back to BitDefender. This is from their webpage privacy policy:

Information about our customers is an important part of our business, and we do not sell it to others. We share customer information only with the subsidiaries of BITDEFENDER, business partners or affliliated companies.

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