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FTC bans NGL: ask me anything app for teen use

Anonymous messaging apps like NGL: ask me anything are attractive to curious teens eager to share unfiltered opinions or hear candid confessions from their peers.

But a new order from the Federal Trade Commission highlights how such apps can be weaponized against teen users through bullying, harassment, and deception. Often marketed as free, the apps can impose a different cost, taking a toll on users’ mental health.

NGL, an abbreviation of the phrase “not gonna lie,” knew about these and other harms, according to the FTC. On Tuesday, July 9, the agency announced that it has banned NGL labs from offering or marketing anonymous messaging apps to teens under the age of 18. It marks the first time the agency has issued such a ban.

“NGL marketed its app to kids and teens despite knowing that it was exposing them to cyberbullying and harassment,” said FTC Chair Lina M. Khan in a statement. “In light of NGL’s reckless disregard for kids’ safety, the FTC’s order would ban NGL from marketing or offering its app to those under 18. We will keep cracking down on businesses that unlawfully exploit kids for profit.”

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At one point, in 2022, NGL was reportedly the most downloaded in Apple’s App Store, notching millions of downloads, according to the FTC.

In a detailed complaint, the FTC alleged that NGL and its cofounders charged users recurrently without obtaining proper consent; falsely claimed that the app’s AI content moderation screened out bullying and harassment; deceived users with fake messages to increase the number of paid subscribers; and actively marketed the app to kids despite knowing that similar services had harmed users. The complaint was filed by the FTC and the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.

The defendants, which include NGL cofounders Raj Vir and Joao Figueiredo, agreed to pay $5 million to settle the case.

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NGL told the New York Times that many of the FTC’s allegations were “factually incorrect,” but that the company made changes required by 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,” Figueiredo told the Times.

The FTC found that in order to boost downloads and engagement, NGL sent users computer-generated fake messages. They included questions like, “Are you straight?”, “Have you done drugs?”, “Have you ever cheated?”, and “Have you ever had any surgery?” One message simply read, “I know what you did.”

Users thought their friends or contacts sent these messages. Some subscribed to the app’s premium version for as much as $9.99 per week, lured by the company’s promise that the sender would be revealed.

Users weren’t given the name of the sender but instead offered “hints” as to when the message was sent, whether the sender had an Android or iPhone, and the sender’s location. When customers complained, NGL executives laughed at them privately, according to the FTC’s complaint.

In a text message thread about those complaints with Vir and Figueiredo, the company’s Product Lead wrote “Lol suckers,” referring to customers who felt they’d been scammed.

NGL also violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act Rule. That federal regulation requires apps and online services knowingly being used by children under 13 to inform their parents about the personal information collected from children and obtain verifiable parental consent.

Fairplay, a nonprofit organization that filed a complaint to the FTC against NGL last fall, applauded the FTC’s order in a statement.

“Big Tech does not have carte blanche to offer children products and features that are demonstrably harmful and deceptive,” said Fairplay policy counsel Haley Hinkle.

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