YouTube has been accused of violating US child protection laws by 23 consumer and child safety groups who filed a complaint (pdf) with the Federal Trade Commission this week.
The complaint alleges that the Google-owned video-sharing site improperly collected data on children who used its service without first informing parents and obtaining their consent. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires websites run for children to inform parents and seek their consent if they collect personal data on kids under 13.
YouTube, and other tech companies like Facebook and Snapchat, bar children under the age of 13 from using their services because of COPPA. The platform says in its terms of service that it’s not for kids; users must be 13 or older. It has a separate platform, YouTube Kids, for family-friendly content. But the coalition of advocacy groups argues the “age gate” on the main site isn’t enough.
“YouTube cannot take advantage of the age gate exception because, although it requires registration to post videos, it does not require registration to watch videos on YouTube,” the complaint argues.
Data privacy has become a major public issue since revelations of improper harvesting of Facebook data by the firm Cambridge Analytica last month. Parents and consumer groups have also been scrutinizing YouTube since disturbing videos slipped by the filters on YouTube Kids (paywall), YouTube’s platform for under 13-year-olds, and videos appearing to exploit children were featured on the main site.
The complaint to the FTC alleges that YouTube knows children use its main service, in part because of the creation of YouTube Kids in 2015, which established a home for the kid-friendly content already on the platform. Creators on the platform also make videos, such as cartoons and series, that are designed for and promoted to under 13-year-olds on the main site, the complaint says. And YouTube collects data on all of its users—even children, the complaint alleges—and uses it to target advertisements.
Google makes most of its money from advertising—about $95 billion in 2017. It does not break out the share that YouTube contributes. YouTube’s advertising policies do restrict the targeting of personalized ads to children under 13, or collecting personal information from children under 13.
A YouTube spokesperson said in a statement: “We are reviewing the complaint and will 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.”
The complaint calls for the FTC to impose civil penalties totaling tens of billions of dollars for Google’s alleged violations.
“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 thirteen,” said Josh Golin at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, one of the groups who filed the complaint. ”Google profits immensely by delivering ads to kids and must comply with COPPA.”