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Pokemon GO..to Court?

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Imagine the scene, dear readers, in the Manchester Law Society Messenger Editorial Committee meeting, when some fool looking to fill column inches suggested an article about legal issues relating to an app based around misguided 90s nostalgia. I am that fool.

Yes, if you’re a smartphone devotee, of a certain age who thought SMTV was entertaining (respectfully submitted, you’re wrong), have impressionable children or simply need to get out more, it can’t have escaped your notice that 90s manga staple Pokémon has found a whole new lease of life thanks to the staggeringly successful launch of Pokemon GO; an app that allows you (yes, YOU) to go hunting for tiny beasts in REAL LIFE, presumably screaming “Pikachu, I CHOOSE YOU!!” at a worrying volume without any hint of irony.

Since its launch in July 2016, the staggeringly popular augmented reality game has, it’s fair to say, taken the world by storm and led to all-new and terrifying outbreaks of grown adults humming or singing the original cartoon’s outrageously catchy theme song. The idea, Niantic tell us, was to get the smartphone generation of kids back out into the real world by using their parents’ phones’ GPS to go and catch, battle and train tiny monsters to fight each other (much like regular parenting). The game has been downloaded roughly half a billion times since launch, and has become one of the more profitable mobile apps of the year; like many other honey traps such as Candy Crush, the game’s free to download, but your rugrats can happily fritter away your disposable income on in-app purchases.

So far, so harmless, you’d think, until you read reports of Mancunian students being robbed of their smartphones when out searching for a Beedrill at 3AM, of a city centre taxi firm setting up special Pokémon hunting routes, and of US kids coming across a dead body whilst looking for a Pokestop or even nearly causing an international incident by wandering across a border. The legal risks in using the app are the same as pretty much any other save for the fact that you’re playing in the real (albeit augmented) world, so what do you need to be thinking about when advising the hordes of clients keen to rein in all the harmless fun?

Well for a start, there’s cybersecurity to think about. Roughly half a million users downloaded a malware app ostensibly linked with Pokémon GO (the ostensibly innocent “Guide To Pokémon GO”) earlier this month, leading to devices being locked until a ransom was paid. US personal injury firms are apparently already gearing up for Jigglypuff-related accident claims (it’s a Pokémon; look it up), and then there’s the inconvenient truth of the fact that showing up at someone’s house to train small monsters because the app tells you to may well constitute trespass and see you arrested.

Notably, anyone used to app users congregating at their front door can flag up their “problem” location to thin the crowd out. Using the app whilst driving is obviously dangerous, even moreso than the growing problem of texting behind the wheel.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that that would be the App and its owners’ fault; those pesky Ts & Cs I spend hours drafting but no-one reads will have some pretty major liability carveouts and jurisdictional issues, although they’re not impossible to overcome-ask Google, currently being sued on the English Courts over tracking user data without their knowledge.

More worrying is the idea that criminals may try and use Pokelures to commit crime or even groom children, and although the UK Government won’t be too keen to hold them responsible. The location-based data upon which the app is built may also be used to prove infidelity in family cases and raise privacy concerns of its own, along with engaging advertising and consumer protection law when it comes to selling its in-app purchases to children, something the CMA’s not averse to restraining (although under-13s can only sign up with a parent or guardian’s permission.

You may also have unwittingly given the app access to your contacts and other personal data, which has seen Niantic’s General Counsel defend its data privacy policy and confirm that there’s no plan to sell in user data. If you’re a brand, you may want to do a deal where your locations become “sponsored” as has already been the case in the US.

Employers will also want to control how their staff use the app whilst on the job in the same way as they deal with social media use; your productivity may suffer if you spend the working day glued to your mobile, after all. That said, if you approach it with a sense of humour you may even be able to build staff engagement dependent upon how you deal with the game’s impact on the workforce.

And if you’re sick of it already (pray for me, as I had to research this article), take comfort in knowing that one day, someone WILL catch ’em all and this too will pass. However, app culture and augmented reality are here to stay and clients will increasingly need advice that counts in the virtual world as much as in real life. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to play Mobile Strike. Arnie needs my endorsement money…

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