Google's YouTube under fire for mining data, aiming ads at under-13 kids
10 April 2018
A coalition of 23 child advocacy, consumer and privacy groups have filed a complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission alleging that Google is violating child protection laws by collecting personal data of persons aged under 13 and allowing advertising aimed at them.
The group, which includes the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), the Center for Digital Democracy and 21 other organisations, alleges that despite Google claiming that YouTube is only for those aged 13 and above, it knows that children under that age use the site.
The fine print of YouTube's terms of service has a warning that goes unheeded by millions of children who visit YouTube to watch cartoons, nursery rhymes, science experiments or toys being unboxed.
"If you are under 13 years of age, then please do not use the service," the terms say. "There are lots of other great websites for you." But this is rarely read by youngsters.
The group states that Google collects personal information on children under 13 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 US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa).
In a formal complaint filed Monday, the child advocates and consumer groups are asking the FTC to investigate and impose potentially billions of dollars of penalties on Google for allegedly violating children's online privacy and allowing ads to target them.
"Google profits handsomely from selling advertising to kid-directed programs that it packages," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, one of the groups that drafted the complaint. "It makes deals with producers and distributors of kids' online programs worldwide. Google has built a global and very lucrative business based on kids' deep connections to YouTube."
Television networks also run ads during cartoons and other programs aimed at kids. The difference is that YouTube does it with a lot of data collection. Its business model relies on tracking IP addresses, search history, device identifiers, location and other personal data about its users so that it can gauge their interests and tailor advertising to them. But a 1998 federal law prohibits internet companies from knowingly collecting personal data from kids under 13 without their parents' consent.
The coalition accuses YouTube of violating that law, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule, and deliberately profiting from luring children into what Chester calls an "ad-filled digital playground" where commercials for toys, theme parks or sneakers can surface alongside kid-oriented videos.
“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 Josh Golin, executive director of the 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.”
YouTube said in an emailed statement that it "will read the complaint thoroughly and evaluate if there are things we can do to improve. Because YouTube is not for children, we've invested significantly in the creation of the YouTube Kids app to offer an alternative specifically designed for children."
That toddler-oriented YouTube Kids app, launched in 2015, offers more parental controls but is not widely used — and it uses the same videos and channels that kids can find on the regular YouTube service.
Although it's not known if the FTC will take action, the complaint comes at a time of increased public scrutiny over the tech industry's mining of personal data and after the FTC opened an investigation last month into Facebook Inc.'s privacy practices.
For that reason, the FTC "may be more reinvigorated and ready to take these issues seriously", said Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which drafted the complaint along with the Center for Digital Democracy and a Georgetown University law clinic. Several other groups have signed on, including Common Sense Media, which runs a popular website for families, and the advocacy division of Consumer Reports.
"I think the day of reckoning has arrived," said Sen Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who co-wrote the 1998 law and says he wants the FTC to look into the YouTube complaint. "Americans want to know the answers as to whether or not the privacy of their children is being compromised in the online world."
FTC spokeswoman Juliana Gruenwald Henderson said in an email that the agency looks forward to reviewing the letter. She said the FTC already has brought more than two dozen cases for violations of the 1998 law. It has settled child privacy cases with Yelp, mobile advertising network InMobi and electronic toy-maker VTech.
None of those are as popular for kids as YouTube, which has toddler-themed channels with names such as ChuChuTV nursery rhymes, which as of last week counted more than 16 million subscribers and 13.4 billion views. It also has more personality-driven programs that cater to preteens.
Consumer advocates say Google knows what it is doing. They point to its "Google Preferred" program through which advertisers on YouTube can pay a premium to get their ads on the most popular videos. The program includes a "Parenting & Family Lineup" that has featured channels such as ChuChu TV, Fox's BabyTV and Seven Super Girls, whose topics include "fluffy unicorn slime."
YouTube does block children who identify themselves as under 13 from posting videos by prohibiting them from creating an account to begin with, but an account isn't needed merely to watch.