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Facebook accused of tricking children

WASHINGTON — More than a dozen children’s advocacy groups on Thursday accused Facebook of knowingly deceiving children into racking up fees from games on its social network, the latest in a string of complaints against the company sent to federal regulators.

The groups called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Facebook violated consumer protection and child privacy laws by duping children into making in-app purchases in games like Angry Birds, PetVille, and Ninja Saga, and then making it nearly impossible for children or their parents to seek refunds. The accusation stems from a 2012 lawsuit.

The complaint, filed by 17 groups including Common Sense Media, Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy, says the purchases were often done without a parent’s permission. In some cases, they amounted to hundreds or thousands of dollars.

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“Facebook’s exploitative practices targeted a population universally recognized as vulnerable — young people,” the groups said in the complaint.

In Washington’s greater focus on the power of Big Tech, Facebook has taken center stage. The social network’s role in state-sponsored election interference, harmful content, and privacy violations has set off a push for new privacy laws and multiple investigations of the company. Next week, Congress will debate proposals for a federal privacy law.

The FTC started investigating Facebook in March after The New York Times reported that the data of tens of millions of Facebook users was unknowingly shared with the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. The agency is in the final stages of that investigation, with staff members and Facebook negotiating over a potential settlement that could include a multibillion-dollar fine and new restraints on the company’s business practices, according to people familiar with the talks.

But the children’s advocacy groups said they hoped their complaint would continue a drumbeat of pressure for Facebook to take more forceful steps to change its business practices oriented toward children.

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Details about the in-app purchases came from court documents that were unsealed at the request of the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit journalism organization. The documents were part of a class-action lawsuit brought in 2012 and settled in 2016 for an undisclosed sum.

The 135 pages of unsealed documents included internal corporate memos and e-mails in which Facebook employees encouraged game developers to create features that would get children to make credit card charges while playing games. In many cases, the children did not realize that their parents’ credit cards were attached to the games or that they were spending real money, the consumer groups argued in their complaint.