U.S. Senator and consumer advocacy groups urge FTC to take action on YouTube’s alleged COPPA violations

By | Marketing

Jul 08

The groups behind a push to get the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate YouTube’s alleged violation of children’s privacy law, COPPA, have today submitted a new letter to the FTC that lays out the appropriate sanctions the groups want the FTC to now take. The letter comes shortly after news broke that the FTC was in the final stages of its probe into YouTube’s business practices regarding this matter.

They’re joined in pressing the FTC to act by COPPA co-author, Senator Ed Markey, who penned a letter of his own, which was also submitted today.

The groups’ formal complaint with the FTC was filed back in April 2018. The coalition, which then included 20 child advocacy, consumer and privacy groups, had claimed YouTube doesn’t get parental consent before collecting the data from children under the age of 13 — as is required by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, also known as COPPA.

The organizations said, effectively, that YouTube was hiding behind its terms of service which claims that YouTube is “not intended for children under 13.”

This simply isn’t true, as any YouTube user knows. YouTube is filled with videos that explicitly cater to children, from cartoons to nursery rhymes to toy ads — the latter which often come about by way of undisclosed sponsorships between toy makers and YouTube stars. The video creators will excitedly unbox or demo toys they received for free or were paid to feature, and kids just eat it all up.

In addition, YouTube curates much of its kid-friendly content into a separate YouTube Kids app that’s designed for the under-13 crowd — even preschoolers.

Meanwhile, YouTube treats children’s content like any other. That means targeted advertising and commercial data collection are taking place, the groups’ complaint states. YouTube’s algorithms also recommend videos and autoplay its suggestions — a practice that led to kids being exposed to inappropriate content in the past.

Today, two of the leading groups behind the original complaint — the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) — are asking the FTC to impose the maximum civil penalties on YouTube because, as they’ve said:

Google had actual knowledge of both the large number of child-directed channels on YouTube and the large numbers of children using YouTube. Yet, Google collected personal information from nearly 25 million children in the U.S over a period of years, and used this data to engage in very sophisticated digital marketing techniques. Google’s wrongdoing allowed it to profit in two different ways: Google has not only made a vast amount of money by using children’s personal information as part of its ad networks to target advertising, but has also profited from advertising revenues from ads on its YouTube channels that are watched by children.

The groups are asking the FTC to impose a 20-year consent degree on YouTube.

They want the FTC to order YouTube to destroy all data from children under 13, including any inferences drawn from the data, that’s in Google’s possession. YouTube should also stop collecting data from anyone under 13, including anyone viewing a channel or video directed at children. Kids’ ages also need to be identified so they can be prevented from accessing YouTube.

Meanwhile, the groups suggest that all the channels in the Parenting and Family lineup, plus any other channels or video directed at children, be removed from YouTube and placed into a separate platform for children. (e.g. the YouTube Kids app).

This is something YouTube is already considering, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal last week.

This separate kids platform would have a variety restrictions, including no commercial data collection; no links out to other sites or online services; no targeted marketing; no product or brand integration; no influencer marketing; and even no recommendations or autoplay.

The removal of autoplaying videos and recommendations, in particular, would be a radical change to how YouTube operates, but one that could protect kids from inappropriate content that slips in. It’s also a change that some employees inside YouTube itself were vying for, according to The WSJ’s report. 

The groups also urge the FTC to require Google to fund educational campaigns around the true nature of Google’s data-driven marketing systems, admit publicly that it violated the law, and submit to annual audits to ensure its ongoing compliance. They want Google to commit $100 million to establish a fund that supports the production of noncommercial, high-quality and diverse content for kids.

Finally, the groups are asking that Google faces the maximum possible civil penalties —  $42,530 per violation, which could be counted as either per child or per day. This monetary relief needs to be severe, the groups argue, so Google and YouTube will be deterred from ever violating COPPA in the future.

While this laundry list of suggestions is more like a wish list of what the ideal resolution would look like, it doesn’t mean that the FTC will follow through on all these suggestions.

However, it seems likely that the Commission would at least require YouTube to delete the improperly collected data and isolate the kids’ YouTube experience in some way. After all, that’s precisely what it just did with Tik Tok (previously Musical.ly) which earlier this year paid a record $5.7 million fine for its own COPPA violations. It also had to implement an age gate where under-13 kids were restricted from publishing content.

The advocacy groups aren’t the only ones making suggestions to the FTC.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) also sent the FTC a letter today about YouTube’s violations of COPPA — a piece of legislation that he co-authored.

In his letter, he urges the FTC take a similar set of actions, saying:

“I am concerned that YouTube has failed to comply with COPPA. I therefore, urge the Commission to use all necessary resources to investigate YouTube, demand that YouTube pay all monetary penalties it owes as a result of any legal violations, and instruct YouTube to institute policy changes that put children’s well-being first.”

His suggestions are similar to those being pushed by the advocacy groups. They include demands for YouTube to delete the children’s data and cease data collection on those under 13; implement an age gate on YouTube to come into compliance with COPPA; prohibit targeted and influencer marketing; offer detailed explanations of what data is collected if for “internal purposes;” undergo a yearly audit; provide documentation of compliance upon request; and establish a fund for noncommercial content.

He also wants Google to sponsor a consumer education campaign warning parents that no one under 13 should use YouTube and want Google to be prohibited from launching any new child-directed product until it’s been reviewed by an independent panel of experts.

The FTC’s policy doesn’t allow it to confirm or deny nonpublic investigations. However, the FTC Office of Public Affairs confirmed it received the groups’ letter.

YouTube hasn’t yet commented.

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