In the midst of Facebook’s data privacy scandal, another tech giant popular with children and teenagers has been challenged over its collection and use of consumers’ information.
More than 20 consumer advocacy groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission this week, alleging that YouTube has been gathering the personal data of children using their platform and then using this data to target advertisements, in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
The act, known as COPPA, requires commercial websites and apps to get informed parental consent before collecting any personal information on children under 13. YouTube, which is owned by Google, allows any visitor to its platform to search for content on the site and watch videos without signing in or verifying age.
“The FTC needs to step up its enforcement of this law,” said Sam Lester, a consumer privacy fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, one of the groups that submitted the complaint. Children are especially vulnerable to advertising, he said, as they may not understand that the content they’re viewing is promotional, and they’re not able to grasp the accompanying privacy risks.
YouTube’s terms of service state that the website is not for those under 13, and Google’s ad policies say that advertisers can’t target ads to children in that age group. The company directs children and families to its YouTube Kids app, which curates age-appropriate content and allows for parental controls.
But regardless, the complaint contends, children under 13 are using the main platform, not just the kids app. And YouTube isn’t oblivious to their presence, the complaint argues—these consumer groups say that YouTube is actively marketing to kids on the site.
In an emailed statement, a YouTube spokesperson said, “We are reviewing the complaint and will evaluate if there are things we can do to improve. Protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us.”
The company added: “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.”
A 2017 survey by Common Sense Media found that more children watch YouTube on the main platform than on the kids’ app. Of parents of kids ages zero to eight, 71 percent said their children watch videos on the main website or app, while 24 percent said their kids watch on the kids’ app. Several of YouTube’s most popular channels show programming for children—for example, Ryan ToysReview, a channel that rates kids’ toys. The channel has more than 13 million subscribers.
It’s also possible that kids are watching these videos without their parents’ knowledge: increasingly, kids have their own mobile devices, which could make it less likely that parents are keeping tabs on viewing habits.
The complaint also demonstrates how advertisers can use Google tools, including AdWords and DoubleClick, to target ads with keywords like “kid” or “child,” or relevant products for children, like “barbie doll dream house.”
“When you collect the viewing data on the ChuChu TV Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs channel, and then you show targeted advertising on that channel, you know that you’re targeting kids,” said Lester.
The best solution, Lester says, would be for Google and other companies with large bases of young users to prohibit targeted advertising entirely on all content directed to children.
“If a website is not able to obtain [parental consent], or it’s not practical to obtain that, then it’s illegal to collect the data,” he said.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.