YouTube has emerged as an alternative to traditional children’s TV with kids generating billions of video views on the online video service. However, the latest findings suggest the website is prioritizing its profits instead of protecting privacy of its young devoted viewers.
Child, consumer, and privacy advocacy groups are claiming YouTube illegally collects data about under-age viewers. A coalition of 23 of these groups, including organizations like Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Center for Digital Democracy, have filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleging Google is violating child protection laws by collecting personal data and advertising to those aged under 13.
The coalition is pressing the FTC to look into the alleged violations.
“For years, Google has abdicated its responsibility to kids and families by disingenuously claiming YouTube — a site rife with popular cartoons, nursery rhymes, and toy ads — is not for children under 13,” said an executive director CCFC. “Google profits immensely by delivering ads to kids and must comply with Coppa. It’s time for the FTC to hold Google accountable for its illegal data collection and advertising practices.”
The child protection law, Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), limits how a company can collect data about kids under 13. Under the law, companies have to notify parents and get their consent before collecting data on children.
According to the complaint, Google is well-aware of the fact under-age children use YouTube despite claims the website is only for those aged 13 and above. Anyone can watch YouTube videos without an account or logging in. According to Trendera research, 45 percent of kids between 8- and 12-years-old have a YouTube Account.
“Google has acted duplicitously by falsely claiming in its terms of service that YouTube is only for those who are age 13 or older, while it deliberately lured young people into an ad-filled digital playground. Just like Facebook, Google has focused its huge resources on generating profits instead of protecting privacy,” said Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy.
Moreover, the group stated that Google collects personal information on children such as location, device identifiers and phone numbers and tracks them across different websites and services without first gaining parental consent as required by the COPPA.
"Google has made substantial profits from the collection and use of personal data from children on YouTube. Its illegal collection has been going on for many years and involves tens of millions of US children," read the complaint.
The complaint estimates YouTube inappropriately collected data on 23 million children over "a period of years."
Exhausted parents off-load their babysitting duties to the YouTube Kids, a standalone mobile app for kids, which was released in 2015 – and these kids represents a pretty lucrative market. As pointed out by the plaintiffs, among the most popular channels on YouTube are those directed at children, like LittleBabyBum with 14.6m subscribers and 14bn views or ChuChuTV Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs with 15.9m subscribers and more than 10bn views.
The 59-page FTC complaint says “YouTube also has actual knowledge that many children are on YouTube, as evidenced by disclosures from content providers, public statements by YouTube executives, and the creation of the YouTube Kids app.”
Katie McInnis, policy counsel for the Consumers Union, said: “YouTube knows children are watching content on their site, and has created content channels specifically aimed at them, but does not appear to obtain the required parental consent before collecting information about them. Google has the responsibility to be Coppa-compliant and ensure that children can safely watch the programs designed and promoted for kids. These practices present serious concerns that warrant the FTC’s attention.”
In face of such grave charges, the video-sharing website needs to do more than just give empty assurances of ramping up scrutiny. Just recently, YouTube received widespread backlash for hosting disturbing children’s content and dark conspiracy theories. If the FTC does find that YouTube violated COPPA, it could force it to add an age gate — a screen that asks viewers if they're over 13.
Moreover, apart from changes in the design, if the website is found at fault the monetary damage will be massive too, as the group has asked FTC to fine YouTube up to $41,484 per violation, which would add up to billions.
Non-profit group Common Sense Media, which reviews and rates media for parents, is also a signer on FTC complaint.
James P. Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense, said: “It is time for Google to be completely transparent with all the facts and institute fundamentally responsible new policies moving forward to protect the privacy of kids. We fully expect Google to work closely with advocates and reach out to parents with information about parental controls, content and collection practices on YouTube so parents can make informed choices about what content they allow their kids to access and how to protect their privacy.”
As of yet, Google hasn’t responded to any requests for comments.
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