Google under fire over kids app

Ten advocacy groups are asking regulators to investigate whether Google is running afoul of federal rules with a new YouTube application for children.

Critics say that the tech giant is being unfair and deceptive with its new YouTube Kids app by seamlessly mixing commercial videos in with the rest of its clips, and they want the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take action.

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“In sum, the advertising practices employed on YouTube Kids clearly take unfair advantage of children and violate long-standing legal protections afforded to children on television,” groups including Public Citizen, the Center for Digital Democracy and Consumers Union — the advocacy arm of Consumer Reportssaid in their complaint.

“Because even our cursory exploration of YouTube Kids revealed so many misleading and unfair advertising practices, we urge the Commission to promptly initiate a full investigation and take action to stop these practices.”

The other organizations backing the complaint are the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Children Now, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog and the Corporate Accountability International.

The YouTube Kids app was launched in February. Google said at the time that it “makes it safer and easier for children to find videos on topics they want to explore.”

Through the app, kids can access child-friendly material such as Reading Rainbow and Thomas the Tank Engine, from outlets such as DreamWorksTV. Parents also have the option of setting additional parental controls. 

According to the new complaint, however, many of the videos are simply advertisements in disguise.

“Much of the content on YouTube Kids would violate long-standing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) policies if it aired on television,” the groups alleged in their FTC complaint.

Because children can have a hard time differentiating between advertisements and other programming, rules require that TV companies make it clear when a show is ending and a commercial is beginning. But on the kids’ app, actual video clips are indistinguishable from promotional spots for McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets or the “My Little Pony” TV show, the groups claim.

Additionally, some videos available through the app appear to be user-generated, but in fact “have undisclosed relationships with product manufacturers” such as Disney’s Maker Studios, the critics said.

Finally, because some of the videos are essentially long advertisements, the app violates some of Google’s own policies, they alleged.

A Google official pushed back against the complaint.

"We worked with numerous partners and child advocacy groups when developing YouTube Kids," the spokesman said in a statement to The Hill. "While we are always open to feedback on ways to improve the app, we were not contacted directly by the signers of this letter and strongly disagree with their contentions, including the suggestion that no free, ad-supported experience for kids will ever be acceptable."

"We disagree and think that great content shouldn’t be reserved for only those families who can afford it.”

The FTC never discusses possible investigations, but it has shown some willingness to go after app companies that appear to be misleading children. Last year, Apple agreed to give out $32 million in refunds to parents whose children racked up big bills without their consent. Shortly afterward, Google agreed to give out $19 million over similar charges. 

— Updated at 9:19 a.m.