This is the heaviest penalty ever for violating Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rules. The video game giant Epic Games, particularly known for its game Fortnite, will have to pay a fine of 520 million dollars for having violated the law on the protection of the privacy of children in the United States, called COPPA law. The company would have set up “design tricks known as dark patterns to trick millions of gamers into making unwitting purchases”, can we read in a statement from the FTC.
The fine is divided into two parts: a fine of $275 million, which sanctions Epic Games for its breaches of the COPPA law, and a second of $245 million which will be used to compensate the financial damages suffered by consumers.
Fortnite, just like other games owned by Epic, offers an online store. If some content is free, the vast majority are paid, and are used to personalize its game. But the publisher would have dotted its shop with many small traps, pushing players to make purchases in spite of themselves. “The counter-intuitive, inconsistent, and confusing button layout Fortnite led to players incurring unwanted charges at the push of a button”, explains the FTC.
Usually, each online purchase is preceded by an alert window inviting the consumer to confirm his purchase or not. But this window is non-existent at Epic, especially when buying virtual currency. These famous V-Bucks have been consumed by many children since upon purchase, no parental confirmation is required, a simple click being sufficient. Some parents then made several hundred dollars in purchases in spite of themselves.
The American authority also criticizes Epic for its voice and text communication functions that are too unmoderated, and the fact that they are activated by default. “The FTC alleges that these default settings […] have harmed children and adolescents”, can we read in the press release. Some minors have reportedly been exposed to intimidation, threats or harassment.
The North Carolina publisher accepts his sanction, but does not take full responsibility. In a press releaseEpic blames aging laws: “The video game industry is a place of rapid innovation, where player expectations are high and new ideas are paramount. Laws written decades ago do not specify how gaming ecosystems should operate. The laws have not changed, but their application has evolved and long-standing industry practices are no longer sufficient.”
The company also promises a form of redemption: “We agreed to this agreement because we want Epic to be at the forefront of consumer protection and provide the best experience for our players. Over the past few years, we’ve made changes to ensure our ecosystem meets the expectations of our players and regulators.”. Earlier this month, Epic implemented “cabin accounts”: when a player below their country’s digital age of consent (15 in France, 13 in the US) signs up, features like online shopping and voice chat can be disabled.