Child protection coalition demands FTC probe into YouTube data collection

A coalition has accused YouTube of violating child protection laws.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer
File Photo

YouTube is at the heart of a complaint filed by child protection groups which are demanding an FTC probe into the platform's data collection practices.

According to a complaint filed with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a coalition of consumer and privacy groups have accused YouTube of violating child protection laws by using data collected from under 13's for marketing purposes.

The Center for Digital Democracy, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Berkeley Media Studies Group, Center for Media Justice, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Federation of California, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse are among the complainants.

The coalition has asked the consumer watchdog to launch an investigation into Google, which owns YouTube, for "violating children's privacy laws in operating the YouTube online video and advertising network services."

"Google has made substantial profits from the collection and use of personal data from children on YouTube," the complaint reads. "Its illegal collection has been going on for many years and involves tens of millions of US children. The parties request that the FTC enjoin Google from committing further violations of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act ("COPPA"), impose effective means for monitoring compliance, and assess civil penalties that demonstrate that the FTC will not permit violations of COPPA."

COPPA is a set of regulations which bind websites and operators with users that are under 13 years of age, as well as those which may be collecting data from children.

If minors are users or website visitors, data cannot be collected, used or disclosed without parental knowledge and consent.

The coalition alleges that YouTube -- which boasts a massive selection of child-friendly content and an app designed solely for children to surf the platform safely -- knows that children use the platform constantly but is not adhering to COPPA rules to protect their privacy.

YouTube's privacy policy suggests that a range of information including device identifiers, geolocation tags, and telephone numbers may be collected.

The complaint alleges that persistent markers, which identify users over time across different services, may also be of note in relation to the alleged flouting of child protection laws.

As YouTube caters to young viewers -- even if the firm's terms of service ask that those under 13 years of age do not use the platform and blocks accounts being created by those of this age and lower -- according to the FTC's revision of COPPA, "a web site or online service that has the attributes, look, and feel of a property targeted to children under 13 will be deemed to be a site or service directed to children, even if the operator was to claim that was not its intent."

As such, YouTube may be in hot water over the alleged collection and use of data from minors for targeted advertising purposes.

The coalition alleges that "Google has actual knowledge that YouTube is collecting personal information from children," and as such, the platform is subject to COPPA.

The core issue lies in visits, which collect information. These visits may be conducted by children without signing up -- which overcomes the age-gate account barrier -- and therefore their data may be used for marketing purposes.

However, under COPPA, YouTube would need to get parental consent for each visit.

As child-friendly content is available through the YouTube for Kids app as well as the general platform, the only way to make sure information collected from children is kept separate may be to shift all child-directed content to the kids' service in its entirety.

See also: uKnowKids child tracker firm in row with security researcher

The FTC is yet to formally receive the complaint and said, "we take enforcement of COPPA very seriously and have brought more than two dozen COPPA cases since the COPPA rule was enacted."

A YouTube spokesperson commented:

"While we haven't received the complaint, protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us. We 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."

Android, iOS mobile apps to download before disaster strikes

Previous and related coverage

Editorial standards