COPPA load of this FTC complaint: YouTube accused of collecting children's data

Privacy groups allege vid-sharing site slaps trackers on under-13s

Two dozen consumer, digital and privacy rights groups have filed a new complaint with America's Federal Trade Commission, claiming that Google's YouTube service violates the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

COPPA requires operators like Alphabet's Google to give parents notice of its data collection. The law needs explicit personal consent for the use of under-13's data, and the FTC has dished out numerous fines against websites and advertising networks over the years. Most recently toy-maker VTech was fined for failing to fully disclose its data slurping.

In response many sites, including YouTube, simply state that children under 13 shouldn't be using it at all – in Google's case it asks up-to-twelves to go ask Mom to set up a Family Link account (which an adult can control). Meanwhile, Google promotes the dedicated YouTube Kids (YTK) service, which it launched in 2015. Ostensibly children's settings in the app are controlled via the Family Link account managed by an adult. YTK claims to host "curated" content and a simplified UX.

However, the public interest groups' new complaint homes in on the primary YouTube service – the one that children aren't supposed to be watching.

The groups, spearheaded by the Center for Digital Democracy, have long expressed concerns about the content aimed at young children.

The new complaint homes in on trackers, persistent identifiers, use of which on children's sites was regulated by the FTC in 2012. Trackers require parental consent, and then may only be used provide "support for the internal operations of the Web site or online service".

However, since this permits the service of "contextual advertising on the Website", YouTube may argue it's in the clear.

Profile-building, however, is strictly forbidden. See here for the definitions.

The groups who filed the complaint questioned why so much children's material is hosted on the main site when children under 13 shouldn't be there at all. You can read the full complaint here (PDF).

We requested YouTube's view on this but had not received a reply at publication time. It told other outlets: "We will read the complaint thoroughly and evaluate if there are things we can do to improve."

Children's viewing of the Disney and Nickelodeon cable channels among six- to 11-year-olds has fallen by over 50 per cent from 2008 to 2017, according to ratings data collator Nielsen.

Meanwhile, the complaint claimed that 243 million items are returned for the search "children's videos" on YouTube and said the second most popular channel is a toys reviewer with 12 million subscribers. ®

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