YouTube accused of violating federal child privacy laws

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A coalition of 23 child-health, privacy and consumer groups is requesting that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigate YouTube for violating COPPA, or the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

The 59-page complaint, filed Monday, alleges that YouTube, which is owned by Google, has been collecting the data of children who use the site, and using that data to target them with ads. COPPA requires website operators to obtain parental consent when collecting data of users younger than 13.

According to the filing, YouTube intentionally collects a slew of information from all of its users, 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.

“A 2017 study found that 80% of U.S. children ages 6-12 use YouTube daily,” the complaint notes. “Child-directed channels are among the most popular channels on YouTube. Many of the top children’s channels are part of the Google Preferred ‘Parenting & Family’ lineup. Major advertisers pay Google a premium to guarantee that their ads will be placed on these popular YouTube channels.”

That’s not the only reason YouTube is having a rough week. The filing comes just days after BuzzFeed News reported the video platform would soon release a version of its YouTube Kids app without a video-suggesting algorithm. The same algorithm has been criticized for suggesting conspiracy theory videos and sexually explicit content, among other things, to kids.

The new “whitelisted” version will only display videos from channels that a team of YouTube curators handpicks, and would exist alongside the algorithmic version.

“Algorithms are not a substitute for human intervention, and when it comes to creating a safe environment for children, you need humans,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. His organization is among those in the coalition accusing YouTube of violating COPPA. It also filed a complaint with the FTC in 2015 accusing YouTube Kids of deceptive marketing to parents based on inappropriate videos.

In Monday’s FTC filing, the coalition of children’s welfare groups wrote, “Google has made substantial profits from the collection and use of personal data from children on YouTube. Its illegal collection has been going on for many years and involves tens of millions of U.S. children.”

YouTube responded in a statement, saying, “We 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.”

An FTC spokeswoman said the agency takes COPPA enforcement seriously and looked forward to reviewing the complaint.

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