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Fortnite game maker to pay $520m over children’s privacy violations

Epic Games, the video game company behind the hugely popular Fortnite online romp, agrees to pay more than half a billion dollars in penalties for collecting data on children and deceptive practices.

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said Monday in a statement that it had secured the record-breaking settlements for two cases from Epic Games, the video game company that was bombarded with complaints involving children’s privacy and methods that tricked players into making purchases.

Epic Games agreed to pay a $275m fine for collecting personal data on Fortnite players under the age of 13 without informing their parents or getting their consent. This is the biggest penalty ever issued for breaking an FTC rule.

“Epic used privacy-invasive default settings that harmed young Fortnite players,” said FTC Chair Lina Khan.

“Protecting the public, and especially children and teens, from online privacy invasions is a top priority for the Commission, and this enforcement action makes clear to businesses that the FTC is cracking down on these unlawful practices.”

The company will also refund $245m to customers, also mostly children, who fell victim to so-called “dark patterns” and billing practices. The total thus reaches $520m.

Dark patterns are deceptive online techniques used to push users into doing things they didn’t intend to do or paying up when they think they’re not paying.

“Fortnite’s counterintuitive, inconsistent, and confusing button configuration led players to incur unwanted charges based on the press of a single button,” the FTC said.

According to the agency, players could, for example, be charged while trying to wake the game from sleep mode, while the game was in a loading screen, or by pressing a nearby button when simply trying to preview an item, it said. Consumers lost hundreds of millions of dollars in unauthorized charges.

Epic Games said it wanted to resolve concerns over “past designs of the Fortnite item shop and refund systems.”

“No developer creates a game with the intention of ending up here. The video game industry is a place of fast-moving innovation, where player expectations are high and new ideas are paramount,” the company said.

“Statutes written decades ago don’t specify how gaming ecosystems should operate. The laws have not changed, but their application has evolved and long-standing industry practices are no longer enough. We accepted this agreement because we want Epic to be at the forefront of consumer protection and provide the best experience for our players.”

According to the FTC complaint, Epic Games employees expressed concerns about the safety of voice and text communication settings for children as early as 2017. Media widely reported that children had been bullied, sexually harassed, and exposed to self-harm and suicide through the game.

Epic Games eventually introduced a button to turn off voice chats, but the company made the option difficult to find, the complaint said.

Already in 2019, National Research Group said in a study that Fortnite has evolved far beyond its status as a hit video game and has become a sort of social gathering space for millions of teenagers and children – and this can be a dangerous environment.

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