Apple has reached a settlement with the FTC over in-app purchasing, ending a long legal battle that challenged much of the basic functionality of the App Store. As a result of insufficient parental controls, the company is required to refund customers who have been billed for faulty charges, paying out a total of $32.5 million to 37,000 different customers. Apple will also be required to change its billing practice "to ensure that it has obtained express, informed consent from consumers before charging them for items sold in mobile apps."

In one case, a girl spent $2,600 in 15 minutes

According to a companywide letter from Apple CEO Tim Cook, posted by 9to5mac, Apple solicited the claims after hearing complaints of in-app purchases that occurred without a parent's permission. In response, the company emailed every iOS user that had made an in-app purchase in an app designed for children, 28 million accounts in total. Of those 28 million, 37,000 responded with claims and were reimbursed for their purchase. Despite the sweeping nature of the FTC settlement, Cook told employees it "does not require us to do anything we weren’t already going to do."

The FTC took particular issue with Apple's 15-minute window for charging, in which a single password entry can be used to authorize unlimited charges during the following 15 minutes of usage. FTC Chairwoman Edith Martinez said in one case, a girl spent more than $2,600 in that 15-minute window, using the app "Tap Pet Hotel." Martinez said the issue was not the duration of time, but the fact that parents approving in-app purchasing have no way of knowing the full extent of the charges they could incur during that window. The settlement requires Apple to modify its billing practices to allow for more explicit consent, with new safeguards in place no later than March 31st of this year.

Tim Cook's letter to employees is reproduced below.

Team,

I want to let you know that Apple has entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. We have been negotiating with the FTC for several months over disclosures about the in-app purchase feature of the App Store, because younger customers have sometimes been able to make purchases without their parents’ consent. I know this announcement will come as a surprise to many of you since Apple has led the industry by making the App Store a safe place for customers of all ages.

From the very beginning, protecting children has been a top priority for the App Store team and everyone at Apple. The store is thoughtfully curated, and we hold app developers to Apple’s own high standards of security, privacy, usefulness and decency, among others. The parental controls in iOS are strong, intuitive and customizable, and we’ve continued to add ways for parents to protect their children. These controls go far beyond the features of other mobile device and OS makers, most of whom don’t even review the apps they sell to children.

When we introduced in-app purchases in 2009, we proactively offered parents a way to disable the function with a single switch. When in-app purchases were enabled and a password was entered to download an app, the App Store allowed purchases for 15 minutes without requiring a password. The 15-minute window had been there since the launch of the App Store in 2008 and was aimed at making the App Store easy to use, but some younger customers discovered that it also allowed them to make in-app purchases without a parent’s approval.

We heard from some customers with children that it was too easy to make in-app purchases, so we moved quickly to make improvements. We even created additional steps in the purchasing process, because these steps are so helpful to parents.

Last year, we set out to refund any in-app purchase which may have been made without a parent’s permission. We wanted to reach every customer who might have been affected, so we sent emails to 28 million App Store customers – anyone who had made an in-app purchase in a game designed for kids. When some emails bounced, we mailed the parents postcards. In all, we received 37,000 claims and we will be reimbursing each one as promised.

A federal judge agreed with our actions as a full settlement and we felt we had made things right for everyone. Then, the FTC got involved and we faced the prospect of a second lawsuit over the very same issue.

It doesn’t feel right for the FTC to sue over a case that had already been settled. To us, it smacked of double jeopardy. However, the consent decree the FTC proposed does not require us to do anything we weren’t already going to do, so we decided to accept it rather than take on a long and distracting legal fight.

The App Store is one of Apple’s most important innovations, and it’s wildly popular with our customers around the world because they know they can trust Apple. You and your coworkers have helped Apple earn that trust, which we value and respect above all else.

Apple is a company full of disruptive ideas and innovative people, who are also committed to upholding the highest moral, legal and ethical standards in everything we do. As I’ve said before, we believe technology can serve humankind’s deepest values and highest aspirations. As Apple continues to grow, there will inevitably be scrutiny and criticism along our journey. We don’t shy away from these kinds of questions, because we are confident in the integrity of our company and our coworkers.

Thank you for the hard work you do to delight our customers, and for showing them at every turn that Apple is worthy of their trust.

Tim