U.S. Senator Bill Nelson sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page on Tuesday asking the company to detail how it selects content for the YouTube Kids application, and what steps Google is taking to ensure children are not being exposed to unsuitable content. The letter comes a couple of months after a number of consumer advocacy groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding the way the app mixes ads and entertainment, as well as a more serious charge filed in May.
The more recent complaint alleged the YouTube Kids application was exposing children to inappropriate content, including references to sex, alcohol and drug use, child abuse, pedophilia and more.
Nelson (D-Fla), as Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the FTC, addresses both of those issues in his letter. His follow-up questions are more concerned with YouTube’s filtering mechanisms, however.
Google released the YouTube Kids application in February as a way to offer parents a curated selection of videos aimed at children. Its launch was initially promising – after all, parents for years have struggled with their kids happening upon adult content while surfing YouTube. But soon after its release, consumer groups began finding problems with the new app, which raised concerns.
In April, nearly a dozen consumer groups including the Center for Digital Democracy, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Consumer Watchdog, complained to the FTC that the YouTube Kids application mixed advertisements with entertainment in a way that’s deceptive to children.
Specifically, they noted that YouTube allowed videos where hosts like cartoon characters were allowed to sell products inside their shows. Plus, the app contained a number of “branded” channels like those for companies like Barbie or Fisher-Price, which the group called out as “little more than program-length commercials.”
The groups also said that some user-generated segments that can be found on YouTube Kids are created by those who have business relationships with the product manufacturers, but fail to disclose this. This also violates FTC guidelines, they complained.
In his letter, Nelson reminds Google/YouTube that ads have to be clearly distinguished in online services aimed at children.
In addition, the senator’s letter asks Google a number of questions about how it selects, filters, and removes videos published to the YouTube Kids application.
The two jointly published a review of the YouTube Kids app, explaining that they were able to view videos that included sexual language, unsafe behaviors like playing with matches or juggling knives, profanity (e.g. in a parody of the film “Casino” featuring Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street), adult discussions about family violence, pornography, and child abuse, jokes about drug use and pedophilia, and alcohol ads.
“Given Google’s considerable technical expertise,” Nelson writes, “the company can presumably and readily deploy effective filtering tools to screen for unsuitable videos.”
Nelson asks Google to explain how it’s determining what’s suitable for children, how it filters the videos, how it handles complaints about the videos in the app, how quickly it removes content that’s flagged, and how it determines the suitability of ads, among other things.
The letter also points to federal regulations that the YouTube Kids application may be violating.
“Section 5 of the FTC Act broadly prohibits ‘unfair or deceptive acts or practices,'” writes Nelson. “Moreover, the FTC enforces the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires online services for children 12 years old and younger to acquire parental consent before collecting any online information.”
“As parents seek out safe and appropriate online venues for their children, it is critical that services designed and marketed for children are, in fact, appropriate for the kids who will undoubtedly use them,” he adds.
Nelson is the first senator to write to Google regarding the application, but he’s not the only one to have expressed concerns. Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who also serves on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and who authored COPPA, says that the issues the advocacy groups have raised call into question whether the app is actually kid-friendly.
“Google must demonstrate how it is keeping its promise to parents to safeguard our children online,” Markey stated.
The FTC hasn’t yet provided a status report on its own inquiry.
In building its Kids app, YouTube collaborated with Common Sense Media, ConnectSafely.org, the Family Online Safety Institute, the Internet Keep Safe Coalition (iKeepSafe) and WiredSafety.org. However, one of the problems with the app is that it’s continually updated with new content that requires review, but it’s unclear how much Google leans on algorithms versus human curation to manage the influx. Plus, the app offers a search feature that’s enabled by default, which could lead kids to unsuitable videos.
There was no deadline on the letter Nelson sent to YouTube, but the senator “expects a prompt response,” we’re told. Google, meanwhile, has not yet provided comment.
Update, 6/18/15: Google confirms it received the letter, but is declining to comment.