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Mobile apps

13 March 2013

Faster internet and more affordable mobile devices have allowed consumers to access globally available services anywhere, anytime.

The most common way for consumers to access these services is via “apps”, small software packages that add functionality to mobile phones, tablets and laptops.

The Commonwealth Consumer Affairs Advisory Commission(CCAAC) is holding a public inquiry to gather views on the consumer experience in downloading apps and making in-app purchases on mobile phones and hand held devices. The TIO made a submission to the inquiry highlighting some of the issues consumers have brought to us about this technology.

The TIO is able to consider complaints about apps if:

  • a telco service provider advertises the functionality of an app as part of a bundled offer
  • they are downloaded from a service provider’s app store
  • they generate unexpectedly high data use resulting in disputed charges, or
  • they are billed to the consumer’s account with the service provider.

For other complaints about apps, consumers may need to contact their local Office of Fair Trading.

We received 221 new complaints about mobile apps from 1 July to 31 December 2012. Of these, 93 per cent (206) were about disputed charges following unexpected high usage by an app. In analysing the nature of these complaints, it became apparent to us that the mechanisms for resolving consumer disputes have not necessarily kept pace with the growth and global nature of this market. 

Our submission noted three potential problem areas.

1. Supply chain complexity

The mobile apps supply chain is complex. It includes developers who produce the app, aggregators who sell the app via an online store and distributors who provide the network over which the app is downloaded and run. It isn’t always clear who has the responsibility to resolve issues when things go wrong.

2. Billing arrangements

There is a range of payment options for mobile apps, including credit card, carrier billing and voucher redemption. Each of these options falls within the jurisdiction of a different dispute resolution scheme.

3. Hidden cost of data

There is a hidden data cost in using apps, including initial download, ongoing use and updates. Consumers who are unaware of this data use risk incurring unexpected charges. We have recommended CCAAC consider how external dispute resolution can be provided more effectively for mobile apps as a key element of any consumer protection framework.

Take control of your data – tips on using apps

Apps may access the internet while running in “background” mode without your knowledge. Others may be offered for “free” from your service provider if accessed in a particular way. To avoid the risk of bill shock due to excess data use by apps, you can:

  • close apps when not needed and switch “push notifications” off
  • switch off cellular network access when not needed, especially when travelling overseas
  • download new apps or updates through a wi-fi connection
  • monitor your data use through any of the tools supplied by your provider, and
  • find out from your provider about how to connect to free or unmetered apps that may be part of your plan.

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