Read carefully through the fine print of YouTube’s terms of service and you might notice that you’ve affirmed you are old enough to watch it.
“If you are under 13 years of age, then please do not use the service,” the terms say. “There are lots of other great web sites for you.”
It’s a warning that goes unheeded by millions of children around the world who visit YouTube to watch cartoons, nursery rhymes, science experiments or videos of toys being unboxed.
In a formal complaint being filed Monday, child advocates and consumer groups are asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate and impose potentially billions of dollars of penalties on Google for allegedly violating children’s online privacy and allowing ads to target them.
“Google profits handsomely from selling advertising to kid-directed programs that it packages,” said Jeff Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, one of the groups that drafted the complaint. “It makes deals with producers and distributors of kids’ online programs worldwide. Google has built a global and very lucrative business based on kids’ deep connections to YouTube.”
YouTube’s business model relies on tracking IP addresses, search history, device identifiers, location and other personal data about its users so that it can gauge their interests and tailor advertising to them. But that model isn’t supposed to work for U.S. children, who are protected by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. That’s a 20-year-old law that prohibits internet companies from knowingly collecting personal data from kids under 13 without their parents’ consent.
The coalition accuses YouTube of violating COPPA and deliberately profiting off luring children into what Chester calls an “ad-filled digital playground” where commercials for toys, theme parks or sneakers can surface alongside kid-oriented videos.
YouTube said in an emailed statement that 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.”
That toddler-oriented YouTube Kids app, launched in 2015, offers more parental controls but is not widely used — and uses the same videos and channels that kids can also find on the regular YouTube service.
Although it’s not known if the FTC will take action, the complaint comes at a time of increased public scrutiny over the tech industry’s mining of personal data and after the FTC opened an investigation last month into Facebook’s privacy practices.
“It seems like (the FTC) may be more reinvigorated and ready to take these issues seriously,” said Josh Golin, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which drafted the complaint along with the Center for Digital Democracy and a Georgetown University law clinic. Several other groups have signed on, including Common Sense Media, which runs a popular website for families, and the advocacy division of Consumer Reports.
“I think the day of reckoning has arrived,” said U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who co-authored COPPA in the 1990s and says he wants the FTC to look into the YouTube complaint. “Americans want to know the answers as to whether or not the privacy of their children is being compromised in the online world.”