Critics seek tough punishment for YouTube over kids' privacy

Critics seek tough punishment for YouTube over kids' privacy

Consumer advocates are pushing for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to come down hard on YouTube’s handling of children’s privacy as regulators approach a potential settlement with the video-sharing site.

The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) released a letter on Monday they sent to the FTC last week, urging the commission to force YouTube to separate children’s videos from the rest of the platform in order to crack down on illegal data collection on younger viewers.

Jeffrey Chester, CDD’s executive director, told The Hill that he became “alarmed” when FTC commissioners asked about a potential remedy that would allow YouTube content creators to simply flag content on their platform that is directed at children in order to make sure advertisers comply with federal children’s privacy laws.

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That approach is not enough for critics of YouTube and its parent Google, who want the company to shoulder the responsibility for protecting children's privacy on the platform.

“It really did sound like they potentially would support a proposal that could take the responsibility ultimately away from Google and place that burden on programmers,” Chester said.

“What I said was if the commission cannot enforce the one privacy law it has responsibility for it has no business [being] given even more power by Congress to protect the rest of us,” he added, referring to the role the FTC would play in any potential privacy legislation that lawmakers draft. “If it can't protect children it should not be empowered by Congress to protect everyone else.”

The issue was raised during a meeting with FTC Chairman Joseph Simons and Commissioner Noah Phillips, two of the three Republicans who make up a majority of the commission.

Bloomberg first reported on Monday that FTC commissioners had floated a potential settlement that would allow YouTube’s content makers to disable ads on children’s videos.

A spokeswoman for the FTC said that the agency had received the letter but declined to comment.

The new pressure from consumer groups comes as the FTC is reportedly nearing the end of its investigation into YouTube’s handling of children’s privacy. Groups like CDD and CCFC had filed complaints with the commission that the Google-owned platform has been routinely violating privacy laws.

The 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) restricts websites from collecting information on children under the age of 13 without obtaining consent from their parents.

In their letter released Monday, the two consumer groups argued that the FTC needs to recognize that much of the responsibility for complying with COPPA rests with Google, which not only operates YouTube but also the advertising networks that do much of the data collection across the internet.

Disabling targeted ads on children’s videos would fall short of addressing the issues with YouTube’s platform, said CCFC Executive Director Josh Golin. Golin said the FTC needs to force a fundamental change to the company’s business practices.

“YouTube has built the most popular children's site in the world through illegal data collection,” Golin told The Hill. “We need to change the dynamic where children and parents think YouTube is the place to go for children's content. As long as children's content is still on YouTube, you're not going to reverse that dynamic.”

YouTube’s practices have received increased scrutiny from both sides of the aisle over whether the company is doing enough to protect children online from a wide array of threats, including exploitation.

Earlier this year, The New York Times reported on how seemingly innocent videos of kids playing had become popular among online pedophiles and were being fed into the platform’s recommendation algorithms. 

The consumer advocates’ letter comes ahead of a Tuesday hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee titled “Protecting Innocence in a Digital World.” Among those testifying will be Angela Campbell, a law professor and lawyer with Georgetown's Institute for Public Representation who submitted the letter last week on behalf of CDD and CCFC.

One lawmaker on the Senate Judiciary Committee, freshman Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyOvernight Defense: Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East | Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Trade deal talks expand as Congress debates tech legal shield Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East MORE (R-Mo.), has introduced legislation that aims to combat child exploitation on YouTube and would force the platform to stop automatically recommending videos with children. Failing to comply could see YouTube hit with fines of up to $10,000 per day.

YouTube has said it is working to address such issues. The company has said it removed more than 800,000 videos in the first quarter of the year that violated their child safety rules. And the company in June announced other changes, from restricting minors from livestreaming without an adult to disabling comments on videos with minors.

YouTube has found itself on the front lines of how to handle online issues with children, but tech watchers note that other companies must also grapple with the same challenges.

YouTube's massive scale and Google's pervasive ad networks have made it challenging for the company to navigate issues around children's videos and to comply with the children's privacy law. The company is not alone.

Earlier this year, the FTC hit the lip-synching app Musical.ly, now known as TikTok, with a $5.7 million fine for illegally collecting information on minors — the largest fine ever imposed under COPPA.

The agency is also under the spotlight as it faces political pressure to show it can adequately police Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google over consumer protection and antitrust concerns.

Another pending FTC decision awaited by lawmakers is the one addressing Facebook’s handling of the Cambridge Analytica debacle after a year-long investigation into whether the social network has violated its commitments in 2011 consent agreement to beef up its privacy practices.

Chester of CDD said that the two investigations are the biggest test cases for the FTC as lawmakers weigh giving the agency more resources and authority to enforce what could potentially become the nation’s first comprehensive consumer privacy law.

“We have told members of Congress that the FTC cannot do the job and that message is getting through,” Chester said. “It is constitutionally incapable of protecting consumers.”

Updated at 3:43 p.m.