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VICE News

YouTube Has Been Harvesting Kids' Data for Years and the FTC Seems Fine with That

YouTube wants to put the responsibility on content creators to turn off ads for kids under 13.

by David Uberti
Jul 9 2019, 4:23pm

Kids watch a ton of YouTube. And for months, the Federal Trade Commission has reportedly been investigating the service for harvesting their data and selling it to advertisers.

But experts consulted by the FTC believe the agency is about to go easy on the Google-owned platform by putting the onus on content creators to turn off ads for kids under 13, rather than segregate children’s programming onto a separate “YouTube Kids” service.

The discussions so far have disappointed activists who’d hoped for a more robust response from the U.S. government to protect children online.

“Over the last 20 years or so, regardless of what party was in power, the FTC has been afraid, been risk-averse, been weak-kneed — choose your metaphor — to the powers of the big digital companies,” said Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, who was involved in the talks.

Privacy groups and consumer advocates have criticized YouTube for sucking up information from underage users to maximize the time they spend online and serve them with personalized ads — a revenue stream likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

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Critics argue that such data collection violates a 1998 law intended to prevent companies from tracking users under 13 without parental consent.

“The government has failed to adopt sufficient safeguards for children.”

“The government has failed to adopt sufficient safeguards for children, and has not effectively enforced the safeguards that do exist,” Angela Campbell, a Georgetown Law professor, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the topic Tuesday.

YouTube officially bars pre-teens from creating accounts. But a 2018 Pew study estimated that 81 percent of American parents with kids aged 11 or younger allow them to watch videos on the platform.

In response to concerns over what those children watch, the company launched the YouTube Kids app in 2015 to allow them to opt in to a more controlled environment. Company officials have also reportedly weighed changes to pre-empt the rumored FTC probe, including moving YouTube’s huge library of children’s programming off the main platform and onto YouTube Kids.

The FTC has not publicly confirmed or denied that it’s investigating YouTube, and spokeswoman Juliana Gruenwald declined to comment in an email to VICE News.

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But agency officials’ recent discussions with privacy advocates suggest as much. After reports of the probe first surfaced last month, the Center for Digital Democracy and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood called for strict penalties on the tech giant in a June 25 letter to FTC commissioners. Their suggestions included barring kids from YouTube and YouTube Kids until it complied with the anti-targeting law.

Leaders from both groups told VICE News they had a series of conversations with agency officials since then, including a July 1 phone call with FTC Chairman Joseph Simons and Commissioner Noah Phillips, both of whom are Republicans. News of the call was first reported by Bloomberg on Monday.

The officials didn’t explicitly say what privacy actions they were leaning toward on YouTube, the advocates said. But both came away with the impression that the FTC was mulling whether to allow YouTube to keep children's content on its main platform while putting the onus on kid-focused video channels to nix advertising.

“The point was raised by one of the commissioners: Can’t content creators disable ads?” said Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “For most of the meeting they were very tight-lipped, and they decided to ask a very substantive question on this topic.”

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The privacy advocates were so alarmed by the implication that they sent a July 3 follow-up letter — released publicly on Monday — that warned regulators of any remedy that allowed kids’ content to remain on the main YouTube site. Disabling ads on individual channels, the groups said, only addressed one aspect of tech companies’ business model.

“Opting out of ‘interest-based’ advertising doesn't necessarily mean you're opting out of data collection,” Golin told VICE News. “Advertising is only part of the problem. Data-collection is a big part of the problem.”

Representatives for Google did not respond to VICE News’ queries of whether disabling ads on a channel would also prevent YouTube from collecting data on users who view its videos. There’s also the question of what would motivate creators to opt out of the advertising revenue they rely on in the first place.

“We don't think that a system that tells content creators they're going to lose money is going to encourage honesty,” Golin said. “It seems pretty clear that self-reporting by content creators does not work.”

Cover: The YouTube app and YouTube Kids app are displayed on an iPhone in New York on Wednesday, April 25, 2018. YouTube is overhauling its kid-focused video app to give parents the option of letting humans, not computer algorithms, select what shows their children can watch. The updates that begin rolling out Thursday are a response to complaints that the YouTube Kids app has repeatedly failed to filter out disturbing content. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)