FTC slams anonymous messaging app (2024)

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by Rebecca Klar and Julia Shapero - 07/09/24 6:12 PM ET
by Rebecca Klar and Julia Shapero - 07/09/24 6:12 PM ET

FTC slams anonymous messaging app (1)

The Big Story

Anonymous messaging app hit with fine, teen user ban

The Federal Trade Commission has banned an anonymous messaging app from hosting kids under 18 on its platform to settle allegations it was unfairly marketed to minors and exposed them to cyberbullying and harassment.

FTC slams anonymous messaging app (2)

© Associated Press

The FTC’s settlement with “NGL: ask me anything” is the first time the agency has ordered messaging app to stop hosting teens and kids online. The move comes after years of mounting pressure for lawmakers and regulators to hold tech platforms accountable for their impact on youth mental health.

In addition to the ban, NGL Labs, LLC and two of its co-founders, Raj Vir and Joao Figueiredo, will also pay $5 million as part of the settlement.

“NGL marketed its app to kids and teens despite knowing that it was exposing them to cyberbullying and harassment,” FTC Chair Lina Khan said in a statement.

“We will keep cracking down on businesses that unlawfully exploit kids for profit,” Khan added.

A complaint unveiled Tuesday by the FTC and the Los Angeles district attorney’s office alleges that NGL and its co-founders actively marketed their service to children and teensand made false claims. The complaint alleged the app falsely claimed that its artificial intelligence (AI) content moderation program filtered out cyberbullying and other harmful messages.

It also alleged that NGL sent fake messages that appeared to come from real people to trick users to sign up for a paid subscription along with false promises that doing so would reveal the identity of the senders of the messages.

“The consequences of these actions can be severe. The anonymity provided by the app can facilitate rampant cyberbullying among teens, causing untold harm to our young people,” Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement.

The app launched in 2021 as an anonymous messaging service that allowed users to receive anonymous messages from friends and social media followers. After downloading, users would be able to share a link on social media accounts asking their followers to respond to prompts, such as “If you could change anything about me, what would it be?”

Followers who clicked the link were taken to the NGL app and able to send an anonymous message to the user.

The complaint alleges that in 2022, after the app failed to gain much interest, NGL began automatically sending users fake computer-generated messages that appear to be from real people. When users posted a prompt inviting messages, they would receive computer-generated fake messages back, such as “are you straight?” or “I know what you did.”

When users responded to the reply prompt, both from real people and fake-generated messages, they would see an advertisment that encouraged them to buy the NGL pro version of the app for as much as $9.99 a week. The complaint alleged that even those who paid, though, did not receive the name of the sender and instead received “hints.”

The complaint alleged that NGL’s founders “laughed at” users who complained about the issue. The company’s product lead “wrote ‘Lol suckers’ in a text message” with the co-founders named in the complaint.

Figueiredo said in a statement the company views this resolution as an “opportunity to make NGL better than ever for our users and we think the agreement is in our best interest.”

“While we believe many of the allegations around the youth of our user base are factually incorrect, we anticipate that the agreed upon age-gating and other procedures will now provide direction for others in our space, and hopefully improve policies generally,” he added.

Read more in a full report at TheHill.com.

Welcome to The Hill’s Technology newsletter, we’re Rebecca Klar and Julia Shapero — tracking the latest moves from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley.

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FTC slams anonymous messaging app (9)

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