Free to Play: Facebook has to publish internal documents


Facebook has to publish internal documents which outline their business practices regarding „Free to Play“ games. Some of the contents were rather unexpected.

A US judge gave Facebook 10 days to publish internal documents in which the handling of so-called "Free to Play" games is explained. Numerous parents in the US had sued the social media giant in a class action lawsuit in 2012. Their children had unintentionally racked up charges in excess of several thousand dollars on their parents' credit cards by playing games on Facebook and unintentionally purchasing game items. Facebook always refused to reimburse the amounts incurred. The publication of some internal Facebook documents, as ordered by the judge, promises a deeper insight into the controversial practice for the first time.

The social network has long been the subject of criticism, not only because of its controversial privacy practices (link will open in a new window). One of the cases involved exactly 6,545 dollars (the equivalent of around 5,740 euros) debited from a credit card deposited with Facebook - for items in a game. Facebook rejected the blame and sees the parents alone as responsible.

Internal criticism

Internally, however, Facebook employees speak a different language. According to reports from Reveal News (link opens in a new window), one employee expressed concern because "it doesn’t necessarily look like real money to a minor".
In addition, users who generate high revenues through game purchases are referred to as "whales". The term comes from gambling jargon, where the term is used to refer to consistently (bordering on wasteful) high-stakes players. These players regularly bring the casinos high winnings.  

However, the fact that some of the unwitting purchasers are minors with no (or only limited) legal capacity obviously was no cause for concern, at least outwardly - refunds were initially refused in all cases. After all, it is the parents' responsibility to monitor their children's activities. The original trial ended with a settlement.

In another case from 2015, a seven-year-old child played the game "Jurassic World" on his father's iPad and made in-app purchases worth the equivalent of around 4500 euros via iTunes within just five days (link opens in a new window). The expenses only became apparent when the father tried to pay a supplier's invoice and the payment was rejected due to an insufficient credit line.
There was a silver lining, however: Apple was accommodating in this case (after a long correspondence) and agreed to a refund. However, such cases are the exception from the rule.

Why a "free" game can quickly become expensive

Many of the so-called "Free to play" games are especially popular with younger players. "Free to play" means that it is free to play the game. However, in order to achieve better results faster within the game, certain game items are often necessary. These must then be bought for "real" money. Sometimes a certain game item, which can only be purchased and not earned, also gives a player a big advantage over other players. This is one of the reasons why critics cynically call this model "Pay to Win".

No desire for nasty surprises?

  • Check exactly which games your child is playing and whether inApp purchases are possible.
  • When you install a new app, don't let your child watch you enter your password. That may sound harsh, but in the above case, the son had memorized his father's iTunes password and used it for in-app purchases.
  • Don't store credit card information on social media. If not otherwise possible, use prepaid cards. This is how you limit the damage in an emergency.
  • Talk to your child about the topic and make him understand that game items cost "real" money - no matter how pretty and colorful the graphics may be.
  • Check exactly which items appear on your credit card statement and also check for e-mails informing you about purchases and downloads. This way you can intervene early and minimize damage.