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F.T.C. Bars Anonymous Messaging App From Serving Users Under Age 18

TechF.T.C. Bars Anonymous Messaging App From Serving Users Under Age 18

The Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday barred an online service for the first time from serving users under the age of 18, saying the app had violated child privacy and consumer protection laws and had harmed children and teenagers.

The F.T.C. said it had reached a settlement with the maker of the anonymous messaging app NGL over privacy and consumer protection violations. NGL Labs, the maker of NGL, had aggressively marketed the app as a “safe space for teens” with robust moderation practices, but instead, it exposed users to cyberbullying and other harms, the agency said.

NGL, a common acronym used for the expression “not gonna lie,” agreed to a $4.5 million settlement to pay consumers affected by the company’s practices. The settlement was jointly reached with the Los Angeles District Attorney, who imposed an additional $500,000 civil penalty on NGL.

Lawmakers and regulators have become increasingly concerned about the safety and well-being of children online. Last month, the Surgeon General called for a health warning label on social media for teenagers and children, which would take an act of Congress to become mandated. Lawmakers are also wrangling over the Kids Online Safety Act, a bill that would force social media, messaging and other sites to protect children from harmful content and make the most robust privacy setting the default for young users.

The F.T.C. said it was pushing to protect children online by examining apps and services that violated child privacy and consumer protection laws.

In NGL’s case, the agency said it found a host of deceptive practices, according to the settlement. The company, based in Los Angeles, released NGL in 2021, and falsely claimed in its marketing to young users that its service used artificial intelligence tools to prevent bullying and other harmful activities online, the F.T.C. said.

NGL also sent fake messages that appeared to come from real people to lure users to the site, according to the settlement. NGL then tricked them into paying for a $9.99 weekly fee to reveal the identities of the senders of messages, but then didn’t disclose those identities, the F.T.C. said.

“NGL marketed its app to kids and teens despite knowing that it was exposing them to cyberbullying and harassment,” Lina Khan, the F.T.C. chair, said in a statement.

In an interview, Sam Levine, the head of consumer protection at the F.T.C., said the agency’s action was meant to send a message to the tech industry. Over the past two years, the F.T.C. has also reached settlements with the Fortnite creator Epic Games and Amazon for child privacy violations.

“We’re taking a broad look at how these apps are affecting kids and teens,” Mr. Levine said.

NGL said many allegations in the claim were “factually incorrect,” but that it had implemented several changes required in the settlement. “After nearly two years of cooperating with the FTC’s investigation, we view this resolution as an opportunity to make NGL better than ever for our users and we think the agreement is in our best interest,” said Joao Figueiredo, the co-founder of NGL.

Parents of children who have been harmed online and child safety groups hailed the F.T.C.’s action.

Kristin Bride, the mother of a 16-year-old who killed himself in 2020 after he was cyberbullied on anonymous messaging apps, had filed a complaint against NGL to the F.T.C. in October, saying the app harmed children. The agency said it met with Ms. Bride and other parents and child safety groups during its investigation.

“We’ve known for over a decade that anonymous apps marketed to teens lead to cyberbullying and, in many cases, a suicide like what happened to my 16-year-old son Carson,” Ms. Bride said in an interview.

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