Young child watching YouTube

YouTube under federal investigation over child privacy, reports claim

Image credit: Dreamstime

According to reports from the Washington Post and New York Times, YouTube is under investigation by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over its possible violation of child privacy laws.

YouTube has more than two billion users, many of whom are lured into spending hours on end watching videos served up by the mysterious YouTube algorithm, which uses deep neural networks to predict the most attractive videos to watch next. Many of YouTube’s most dedicated viewers are children.

According to reports, an FTC investigation into YouTube’s handling of children’s data has reached its late stages. The investigation was reportedly initiated following complaints from consumer groups, child protection advocates and privacy campaigners.

These groups have argued since 2015 that YouTube is violating the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa), which lays out the responsibilities of online platforms to protect the data of children under the age of 13. Many social media companies, including Facebook, disallow young children from signing up to their services due to the limitations and responsibilities laid out by Coppa. YouTube has a standalone app for children under the age of 13 – YouTube Kids – which is intended as a hub for child-appropriate videos selected from the main site.

However, the campaign groups have argued that YouTube is able to collect data on children under the age of 13 through its main site.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood told the New York Times that it had filed a complaint against YouTube in 2016, alleging that the company was using ‘influencer’ marketing to target children, and again in 2018 with other campaign groups over allegations that YouTube was collecting the personal information of children under the age of 13 without obtaining parental consent.

David Monahan, campaign manager for the group, told the Times that: “Action by the FTC is long overdue. If action is coming, we hope it comes with the conditions that YouTube clean up its act and stop targeting children.”

Following the Washington Post and New York Times reports, Democratic Senator Edward Markey, who sits on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, released a statement welcoming the investigation: “An FTC investigation into YouTube’s treatment of children online is long overdue. It is no secret that kids flock to YouTube every day, but the company has yet to take the necessary steps to protect its youngest users. I am pleased to see reports that the FTC is working to hold YouTube accountable for its actions.”

“We must do much more to ensure that our children are protected from online dangers known and unknown. In the coming weeks, I will introduce legislation that will combat online design features that coerce children and create bad habits, commercialisation and marketing that manipulate kids and push them into consumer culture, and the amplification of inappropriate and harmful content on the internet,” he continued. “It’s time for the adults in the room to step in and ensure that corporate profits no longer come before kids’ privacy.”

In March 2019, Markey introduced a bill that would extend current child privacy laws to children up to the age of 16.

A number of scandals relating to the impact of YouTube on children have emerged in recent years, including the proliferation of disturbing content targeted at children and mimicking popular kids’ content (Elsagate); the targeting of hyperconsumerist content towards children, such as unboxing and ‘haul’ videos; the promotion of content featuring provocatively dressed children through the YouTube algorithm; and the revelation that paedophile rings were communicating using comments under videos featuring children (which resulted in advertisers turning their backs on the platform and YouTube closing comments on most videos primarily featuring children).

The company has also started to limit recommendations for videos which could put children at risk and has forbidden minors from livestreaming without an adult in the room.

However, earlier this month a YouTube spokesperson told the New York Times that if it stopping recommending videos which feature children, this would hurt creators. Some of the platform’s most lucrative channels heavily feature children, including Ryan ToysReview (featuring toy unboxing) and Tydus Talbott (who appears in YouTube celebrity Jake Paul’s videos and is known as ‘Mini Jake Paul’).

With a possible fine or settlement around the corner, the company could be under pressure to introduce stricter measures to protect children and their data, such as by moving all children’s content to the YouTube Kids app.

In February, the FTC fined the makers of video social media app TikTok $5.7m (£4.5m) for violating child privacy laws, after it was found that children under the age of 13 were able to use the site with flimsy enforcement of its age restrictions. The FTC is also believed to be in the final stages of negotiating a record-breaking £3-5bn (£2.4-3.9bn) fine with Facebook over the social media giant’s failure to protect user data from political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles