Over 20 advocacy groups complain to FTC that YouTube is violating children’s privacy law

A coalition of over 20 child advocacy, consumer and privacy groups filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission asking it to investigate and sanction YouTube for violation of federal children’s privacy laws. Specifically, the groups say YouTube is violating COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires that websites directed at children under the age of 13 get parental consent before they’re allowed to collect children’s data. YouTube doesn’t do this, the complaint says.

Technically, YouTube’s site is aimed at those users 13 and older, its terms state. That’s how it gets around having to abide by child privacy laws. But the complaint points to several examples of how the site is clearly targeting younger children, including its hosting of cartoon videos, nursery rhymes, and toy ads. Some of the most popular channels on YouTube are also those aimed at young kids,like ChuChu TV Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs, which has 15.9 million subscribers and over 10 billion channel views, and LittleBabyBum, which has 14.6 million subscribers and over 14 billion channel views.

Plus, advertisers can target kids’ programming through the “Parenting and Family” lineup in the Google Preferred ads platform, the complaint states.

“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,” said Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, one of the groups who signed the complaint, in a statement. “Just like Facebook, Google has focused its huge resources on generating profits instead of protecting privacy.”

The groups have a point. The proliferation of children’s’ videos on YouTube and the potential harm that came from having them mixed in with more adult-oriented content is what led YouTube to launch the YouTube Kids app several years ago. So it’s hard to argue, simply, that “YouTube is not for kids.”

However, even that YouTube Kids has come under fire in recent days because it doesn’t fully protect children from inappropriate videos, including those that took advantage of YouTube’s algorithms for suggested videos, in order to attract views to their shady and sometimes downright disturbing content.

YouTube has tried to crack down on these videos and demonetize them, but inappropriate content continues to slip through – most recently, with conspiracy videos suggested to children. Now the company is reportedly preparing to release a version of the YouTube Kids app without the algorithmic suggestions.

YouTube pointed to the creation the Kids app in response to the groups’ complaint, according to CNET’s report, saying the app was built for younger viewers because YouTube itself is “not for children.”

But the advocacy groups say that’s not true. The same content is available both on YouTube Kids and YouTube.com, and the latter benefits from the ability to collect data without having to play by the rules.

“Kids have been watching videos on YouTube for years, something the company has known, and profited off of, by targeting content and ads at children under 13. 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,” said James P. Steyer, CEO of Common Sense. “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,” he added.

The complaint arrives at a time when there’s a heightened awareness and concern over the data collection and data privacy practices of major tech companies in the U.S.,as well as how those systems can be compromised by foreign governments. Most notably, the news cycle is focused on Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal which will see CEO Mark Zuckerberg having to testify before Congress. But YouTube, too, has had issues with Russian trolls spreading propaganda on its site, like they had done on Facebook and Twitter.

The combination of the poor data privacy practices across social media, abuse of social media platforms by foreign actors, YouTube’s misbehaving algorithms, and its other missteps with regard to its approach with children, may have this complaint taken more seriously than those in the past.

Others who signed the complaint include:

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), Berkeley Media Studies Group; Center for Media Justice; Common Sense; Consumer Action; Consumer Federation of America; Consumer Federation of California; Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports; Consumer Watchdog; Corporate Accountability; Defending the Early Years; Electronic Privacy Information Center (“EPIC”); New Dream; Obligation, Inc.; Parent Coalition for Student Privacy; Parents Across America; Parents Television Council; Privacy Rights Clearinghouse; Public Citizen; The Story of Stuff Project; TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Childhood Entertainment); and USPIRG.