Advocates Say Google’s YouTube Violates Federal Children’s Privacy Law
Jeff Chester | Apr 9 2018
WASHINGTON, DC—April 9, 2018—Today, a coalition of leading U.S. child advocacy, consumer, and privacy groups represented by the Institute for Public Representation filed a complaint urging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate and sanction Google for violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in operating YouTube. Google claims that YouTube is only for users 13 and up, despite being the most popular online platform for children, used by 80% of American children ages 6 to 12. The site features many programs designed and promoted for children and Google generates significant profits from kid-targeted advertising. The complaint says the FTC should subject Google to penalties, which could total in the billions of dollars.
The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), and 21 other organizations demonstrated in their filing that Google, which owns YouTube, makes substantial profits collecting many types of personal information on kids on YouTube, including geolocation, unique device identifiers, mobile telephone numbers, and persistent identifiers used to recognize a user over time and across different websites or online services. Google collects this information without first providing direct notice to parents and obtaining their consent, and Google uses it to target advertisements to kids across the internet, including across devices. COPPA bars the operator of a website directed to children, or that has knowledge of children using it, from collecting and using such information without obtaining parental consent.
CCFC’s Executive Director Josh Golin said, “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. Google profits immensely by delivering ads to kids and must comply with COPPA. It’s time for the FTC to hold Google accountable for its illegal data collection and advertising practices.”
Child directed channels such as ChuChuTV Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs (15.9 million subscribers and over 10 billion channel views) and LittleBabyBum (14.6 million subscribers and over 14 billion channel views) are among the most popular channels on YouTube. Major advertisers pay Google a premium to place their ads in a platform known as “Google Preferred,” which includes a “Parenting and Family” lineup comprised mostly of popular channels targeted to children.
“Google has acted duplicitously by falsely claiming in its terms of service that YouTube is only for those who are age 13 or older, while it deliberately lured young people into an ad-filled digital playground,” said Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. “Just like Facebook, Google has focused its huge resources on generating profits instead of protecting privacy.”
Angela J. Campbell, counsel for CCFC and CDD, said: “Given the large number of children affected and the extent of YouTube’s COPPA violations, the FTC needs to impose large civil penalties to show it is serious about protecting children’s privacy online.”
James P. Steyer, CEO of Common Sense, said: "Kids have been watching videos on YouTube for years, something the company has known, and profited off of, by targeting content and ads at children under 13. It is time for Google to be completely transparent with all the facts and institute fundamentally responsible new policies moving forward to protect the privacy of kids. We fully expect Google to work closely with advocates and reach out to parents with information about parental controls, content, and collection practices on YouTube so parents can make informed choices about what content they allow their kids to access and how to protect their privacy.”
Katie McInnis, policy counsel for Consumers Union, said: “YouTube knows children are watching content on their site, and has created content channels specifically aimed at them, but does not appear to obtain the required parental consent before collecting information about them. Google has the responsibility to be COPPA-compliant and ensure that children can safely watch the programs designed and promoted for kids. These practices present serious concerns that warrant the FTC’s attention.”
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; 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 (“EPIC”); 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.
The complaint was drafted by the Communications & Technology Law Clinic in the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center.