Child advocacy groups claim that YouTube illegally collects data about under-age viewers and then uses the data to target them with ads. The privacy groups want the Google-owned company to change the way it handles children’s data and also pay billions of dollars in fines.
In a formal complaint filed with the FTC on Monday, several child advocacy groups have urged the agency to investigate the video streaming platform for breaching the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The act restricts the companies from collecting data about kids under the age of 13. The law requires companies to inform parents and get their permission before collecting any data on their children.
“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,” reads the complaint from the child advocacy groups, which includes the Center for Digital Democracy and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
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The child advocacy groups claim that the Google-owned company has been making profits by deliberately attracting children to an “ad-filled digital playground,” where it targets them with ads for toys, theme parks or sneakers. Targeting children with ads is a lucrative business. The complaint specifically points to a YouTube channel called Ryan ToysReview, where a 6-year-old reviews toys.
YouTube’s business model is based on tracking user data like search history, location and other personal data to customize ads and their service for them. In a statement to the Associated Press, the video streaming platform said it will read the complaint and also analyze if it can further improve the platform. Further, the Google-owned company said that “YouTube is not for children,” and thus, it has invested heavily in its Kids app.
The YouTube Kids app, which was launched in 2015, gives more control to parents. The YouTube Kids app offers the same videos and channels as on the regular platform. However, the YouTube Kids app is not very popular. In their complaint to the FTC, the child advocacy groups say that most kids are not watching the YouTube Kids app, but rather, they are using the regular YouTube. The is also aware of this, and yet, it is doing nothing, the complaint says.
The child advocacy groups claim that Google knows its video platform is popular among children between the ages of six and 12. The search giant even touts this feature of its platform to advertisers, the complaint reads. The complaint also says that a children’s channel is the second most popular channel on the video platform and that YouTube does not have a child privacy notice posted on its site. A channel by the name of ChuChuTV nursery rhymes has more than 16 million subscribers and 13.4 billion views. This channel even offers personality-driven programs that focus on preteens, notes the Associated Press.
In a survey conducted last year by a market research firm that specializes in children and families, it was found that YouTube is the most “powerful brand in kids’ lives.” Further, the survey found that 80% of American children aged 6 to 12 use the platform daily. The survey by the non-profit group Common Sense found that 71% of kids watch the regular YouTube website or app, while only 21% use the YouTube Kids app. Common Sense has also signed the complaint, notes Wired.
YouTube’s terms of service restrict those under 13 years of age from using the platform. Thus, Google could argue that parents are allowing their kids to watch videos on the platform. However, the truth is that anyone can easily watch a video on YouTube, and there is no need to have an account with the service.
As of now, it is not known if the FTC will actually initiate an investigation, but there are good chances it will, considering the recent accusations that the tech industry is facing over unfairly sharing personal data. Last month, the FTC ordered an investigation into Facebook’s privacy practices following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
This is not the first time child advocacy groups have gone against YouTube and filed a complaint with the FTC. In 2015, the Google-owned company faced massive criticism for violating FCC laws related to advertising to children. Further, parents have often complained of the availability of inappropriate videos on the YouTube Kids app. The company has also acknowledged that its algorithms aren’t working very well, but it said it will hire more human moderators to curate the content.