Child protection groups in the U.S. filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on April 9 (CNN), alleging that YouTube is collecting the personal data of children under the age of 13 in a breach of government rules when parental consent has not been obtained.
The 23 groups claim Google, the owner of YouTube, has breached the U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which limits how companies can collect data from those under 13. The complaint says YouTube has collected the personal information of juveniles, including their location, phone numbers and websites visited, without parental consent (The Guardian) and they should pay a fine up to “tens of billions” of dollars (CNN).
The coalition of groups allege that despite YouTube’s terms of service, which say the platform is not for anyone under the age of 13 (CNN), the company knows children under this age use the channel (The Guardian). The groups also says YouTube is the most popular online platform for children in the U.S. and used by 80 percent of children aged 6-12.
Videos on YouTube can be watched without an account; children can borrow user logins from parents or lie about their ages when setting up a new account (CNN). [Click here to see the age requirements to make a Google account for different countries]. According to research by marketing analysts Trendera, 45 percent of 8-12-year olds have a YouTube Account.
Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, the leading group attached to the 59-page complaint, said: “It [YouTube] deliberately lured young people into an ad-filled digital playground … Just like Facebook, Google has focused its huge resources on generating profits instead of protecting privacy” (The Guardian).
A YouTube spokesperson said: “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.”
While Google doesn’t let advertisers specifically target those under the age of 18, the complainant says they can still use keywords like “toddler” and “toy” to target ads at children (CNN). The group estimates YouTube inappropriately collected data on 23 million children over “a period of years” and asks the FTC to fine the platform up to $41,484 per violation (CNN).
According to the groups, some of the most popular channels on YouTube are aimed at children, including ChuChuTV Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs, which has 15.9m subscribers and more than 10bn video views (The Guardian).
YouTube say their 2015 app, YouTube Kids, complies with all COPPA rules and doesn’t collect data for ad targeting (CNN).
If the FTC finds that YouTube broke COPPA, it could force the company to add a screen that asks viewers if they’re over 13 (CNN).
The FTC has fined website operators which failed to comply with COPPA in the past. The owners of the website Xanga were fined $1 million in 2006 for consistently allowing children under 13 to sign up without parental consent. In 2016, the mobile advertising network inMobi was fined $950,000 for tracking the location of all users, including those aged 13 and younger.