Heard about the latest big tech company pledging to finally end some infuriating mistreatment of consumers and make amends to them--without admitting any guilt and only after the Federal Trade Commission or a consumer group has put a gun to its head? This pattern has become all too familiar. Here are a few examples from just the first ten months of 2014:
• January--Apple signs a consent order with the Federal Trade Commission to refund at least $32.5 million to the parents of children who had made unsupervised purchases in Apple's iTunes App Store. It also agrees to alter its in-app purchase system to eliminate a loophole that had let children make such purchases for periods of up to 15 minutes. According to the FTC, during the nearly three years before it signed the consent order, Apple had received "at least tens of thousands" of complaints related to unauthorized in-app charges by children. In March 2012, parents had filed a class action lawsuit against Apple for similar reasons.
• March-- Google closes a loophole in the Google Play Store similar to Apple's glitch, but which had let children make unsupervised purchases for periods of up to 30 minutes. However, the search giant fixes the problem only after Consumer Reports publishes an embarrassing article, Google Play Store lets your kid spend like a drunken sailor, and as a class action lawsuit is filed by parents against Google that cites the Consumer Reports article. (Disclosure: I wrote that CR article when I was Technology Editor at Consumer Reports). In September, Google agrees to pay up to $19 million to parents whose children had bought items in the Google Play Store without parental consent. How long had this 30-minute loophole in the Google Play Store been known before Google fixed it? My research showed that it had been discussed publicly for up to nine months on sites like TalkAndroid, LittleGreenRobot, and Reddit.
• September--Amazon, known for its attentiveness to customers, blames parents for their children's unsupervised in-app purchases in its app store, while denying a Federal Trade Commission complaint about those purchases. According to the FTC complaint, just one month after Amazon's store introduced in-app purchasing (without any password authorization) in November 2011, Amazon staff already knew that the capability was causing problems for "a large percentage" of customers. According to the FTC, a few months later Amazon began requiring passwords for large purchases--but not for those of $20 or less. Even then, the FTC says, there was a password loophole of at least 15 minutes during which a child could make unsupervised purchases; not until June 2014 did Amazon close the loophole. Amazon argues that the FTC's case should be dismissed because, among a variety of reasons, Amazon provided its parent-customers with "reasonable tools" to avoid authorized charges and, in its complaint, the FTC is trying to hold Amazon to a "new and unjustified legal standard." This case is still pending in court.
• October--Facebook admits that it should have taken a different approach to a psychological experiment it conducted in 2012 on many thousands of its users without informing them, in which it tried to manipulate their emotions. The company now says that it will make changes to avoid further violating users' trust. Earlier, in July, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg apologized for the study having been "poorly communicated," without admitting that there was anything inappropriate about the experiment itself.
Among the above examples, Facebook's behavior is, perhaps, the easiest to understand. Trampling on its users' trust isn't new to its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, a serial apologizer whose motto is "move fast and break things." In fact, he has publicly apologized so many times that AllThingsD even published a retrospective called The Apologies of Zuckerberg.
But why would Apple, Google, and Amazon be so disrespectful of consumers as to delay for months or years fixing a major--and easily remedied--problem that was distressing many parents? Had they become deaf to the appeals of the average person? Or were they so focused on developing gee-whiz new features that eliminating an existing problem had a low priority? Maybe the explanation can found in the part of Silicon Valley's business philosophy that says, "ask for forgiveness, not permission." OK, innovators not asking permission for daring new moves makes sense. But covering all your sins by apologizing later? Excuse me. But sometimes after-the-fact is unacceptable. Can you imagine airlines adopting this approach toward fixing known hazards by rationalizing that they could always compensate victims' families should the worst happen? (Actually, according to a member of the Federal 9-11 Commission in 2003, prior to those attacks the airlines did lobby against the implementation and funding of flight safety measures.)
In any case, doing business in a way that unnecessarily puts at risk consumers' privacy, hard-earned money, or well-being is unacceptable. It's not enough for any company--tech or non-tech--to merely warn consumers that using a product involves risks and consider that doing so has absolved it of any further responsibility. Those who would serve consumers must make every possible effort to eliminate all known risks without delay.