Another class action style lawsuit has been lodged against a tech giant in the U.K. alleging violations of privacy and seeking major damages. The latest representative action, filed against Google-owned YouTube, accuses the platform of routinely breaking U.K. and European data protection laws by unlawfully targeting up to five million under-13-year-olds with addictive programming and harvesting their data for advertisers.
U.K. and EU law contain specific protections for children’s data, limiting the age at which minors can legally consent to their data being processed — in the case of the U.K.’s Data Protection Act to age 13.
The suit is being brought by international law firm Hausfeld and Foxglove, a tech justice nonprofit, which says they’re seeking damages from YouTube of more than £2.5 billion (~$3.2 billion).
Per the firms, it’s the first such representative litigation brought against a tech giant on behalf of children and among the largest such cases to date. (Last month a similar class action style suit was filed against Oracle in the U.K. alleging breaches of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation [GDPR] related to cookie tracking.)
If the case succeeds, they say millions of British households whose kids watch YouTube may be owed “hundreds of pounds” in damages.
Duncan McCann, a researcher on the digital economy and father of three children all under 13 who watch YouTube and have their data collected and ads targeted at them by Google, is serving as representative claimant in the case.
Commenting in a statement, McCann said: “My kids love YouTube, and I want them to be able to use it. But it isn’t ‘free’ — we’re paying for it with our private lives and our kids’ mental health. I try to be relatively conscious of what’s happening with my kids’ data online but even so it’s just impossible to combat Google’s lure and influence, which comes from its surveillance power. There’s a massive power imbalance between us and them, and it needs to be fixed.”
“The [YouTube] website has no user practical age requirements and makes no adequate attempt to limit usage by youngsters,” notes Hausfeld in a press release about the lawsuit.
While a Foxglove release about the suit points to YouTube pitch materials intended for toy makers Mattel and Hasbro (and made public via an earlier FTC suit against Google) — in which it says the platform described itself as “the new Saturday morning cartoons,” “the number one website visited regularly by kids,” “today’s leader in reaching children age 6-11 against top TV channels” and “unanimously voted as the favorite website of kids 2-12.”
Reached for comment, a YouTube spokesperson sent us this statement: “We don’t comment on pending litigation. YouTube is not for children under the age of 13. We launched the YouTube Kids app as a dedicated destination for kids and are always working to better protect kids and families on YouTube.”
The tech giant maintains that YouTube is not for under 13s — pointing to the existence of YouTube Kids, a dedicated kids’ app it launched in 2015 to offer what it called a “safer and easier” space for children to discover “family-focused content,” to back up the claim.
Although, the company has never claimed that no children under 13 use YouTube. And last year the FTC agreed to a $170 million settlement with Google to end an investigation by the regulator and the New York Attorney General into alleged collection of children’s personal information by YouTube without the consent of their parents.
The rise in class action style lawsuits being filed in the U.K. seeking damages for breaches of data protection law follow a notable appeals court decision, just under a year ago, also against Google.
In that case the appeals court unblocked a class action style lawsuit against the tech giant related to bypassing iOS privacy settings to track iPhone users.
In the U.S., Google paid $22.5 million to the FTC back in 2012 to settle the same charge, and later paid a smaller sum to settle a number of U.S. class action lawsuits. The U.K. case, meanwhile, continues.
While Europe has historically strong data protection laws, there has been — and still is — a lack of robust regulatory enforcement which is leaving a gap that litigation funders are increasingly willing to plug.
In the U.K. the challenge for those seeking damages for large-scale violations is there’s no direct equivalent to a U.S. class action. But last year’s appeals court ruling in the Safari bypass case has opened the door to representative actions.
The court also said damages could be sought for a breach of the law without needing to prove pecuniary loss or distress, establishing a route to redress for consumers that’s now being tested by several cases.