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YouTube Illegally Tracks Data on Kids, Groups Claim in FTC Complaint

Google’s YouTube for years has been collecting data on children’s viewing patterns — in violation of a federal law — a coalition of 23 advocacy groups alleged in a complaint filed Monday with the FTC.

YouTube said it has not reviewed the complaint but said it 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,” a YouTube rep said in a statement Monday.

The consumer groups — which include the Center for Digital Democracy, Common Sense Media, and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood — urged the FTC to “investigate and sanction” Google for YouTube’s alleged violations of the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. About 80% of children in the U.S. aged 6-12 use YouTube daily, according to a 2017 survey by research firm Smarty Pants cited by the groups.

“Google has actual knowledge that children under age 13 are using YouTube,” the coalition of groups said in the April 9 FTC complaint. “Google nonetheless collects and uses personal information from all YouTube users, including children under the age of 13, without giving notice or obtaining advanced, verifiable parental consent as required by COPPA.”

The groups may see an opportunity to strike while the iron is hot in D.C. on data-privacy concerns. Facebook has been reeling from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, revealing last week that data on upwards of 87 million users may have been improperly obtained by the political consulting firm that had worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is set to testify before Congress this week.

In their FTC complaint, the advocacy groups claimed Google makes huge profits from improperly selling ads using data to target children. They called on the FTC to levy fines on Google that “could total in the billions of dollars.”

“For years, Google has abdicated its responsibility to kids and families by disingenuously claiming YouTube — a site rife with popular cartoons, nursery rhymes, and toy ads — is not for children under 13,” CCFC executive director Josh Golin said in a statement. “It’s time for the FTC to hold Google accountable for its illegal data collection and advertising practices.”

According to YouTube, it requires users who sign up for regular accounts to verify that they are 13 or older. It says it disables accounts if it becomes aware that a user is under 13. In addition, YouTube says, it has clearly outlined policies that restrict advertisers from targeting personalized ads to children under 13 or from collecting personally identifiable information from children who are underage.

YouTube is now working on a version of YouTube Kids that will be entirely curated by human editors, which could arrive in the next few weeks as an option for parents alongside the regular, algorithm-fed YouTube Kids app, BuzzFeed reported last week, citing an anonymous source.

On Monday an FTC spokeswoman confirmed the agency received the complaint but did not comment further. Since COPPA was enacted, the FTC has brought more than two dozen cases against alleged violators.

It’s not the first time watchdog groups have called on the FTC to look into YouTube’s kid-targeted advertising practices. In 2015, a similar coalition including many of the same organizations urged the agency to investigate the YouTube Kids app for allegedly presenting content and advertising in a deceptive manner.

The Google Preferred premium ad program for YouTube includes a “Parenting and Family” category comprising popular channels targeted at children. The advocacy groups specifically singled out two top kids’ channels on YouTube: ChuChuTV Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs (which has 15.9 million subscribers and over 10 billion channel views) and LittleBabyBum (14.6 million subscribers, more than 14 billion views).

The FTC complaint against Google was drafted by the Georgetown University Law Center’s Communications & Technology Law Clinic in the Institute for Public Representation. The text of the complaint can be found at this link.

Groups signing on to the complaint to the FTC along with CDD and CCFC are: Berkeley Media Studies Group; Center for Media Justice; Common Sense Media; Consumer Action; Consumer Federation of America; Consumer Federation of California; Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports; Consumer Watchdog; Corporate Accountability; Defending the Early Years; Electronic Privacy Information Center; New Dream; Obligation, Inc.; Parent Coalition for Student Privacy; Parents Across America; Parents Television Council; Privacy Rights Clearinghouse; Public Citizen; The Story of Stuff Project; TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Childhood Entertainment); and USPIRG.

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