Feb 24, 2015 · 1 minute

Snake oil used to be sold in bottles; now it's downloaded from the App Store.

That's what the Federal Trade Commission has decided in settlements with two developers who made applications which promised to detect signs of melanoma. Both have agreed to pay a small fine and to stop incorrectly advertising their apps.

The applications, which have been removed from the App Store, independently claimed to be able to determine if a mole is a sign of skin cancer or is benign. They cost as much as $4.99  -- much higher than most software available in the App Store.

The FTC went after the apps because they claimed to be able to offer medical advice without offering proof to support those claims. (Sound like a company we know?) All the commission wants is for developers and marketers to be honest with consumers:

Thus, if scientific testing demonstrates that the app is accurate 60 percent of the time, the advertisers would be able to make a 60 percent accuracy claim. It would be incumbent upon these marketers to make sure that their advertising conveyed that level of accuracy and did not suggest a stronger level of science to reasonable consumers.
Making sure apps don't mislead consumers about their capabilities is important because people make real medical decisions based on whatever these apps claim. That's problematic even if the software is accurate; it can be disastrous if it's not.

And it's hard to blame people for thinking they can take an application at its word. Software can translate speech in real-time, identify a song after a few bars, or provide information the moment it's needed. Why shouldn't it offer medical advice?

Finding the limit between software's current capabilities and the blue sky dreams of technologists around the world is hard. This settlement shows that the FTC is trying to make it easier for people to find that line, especially when their health is at risk.

Honesty in advertising. Who would've thunk that might be a good thing?

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]