The Future of Mobile

Coalition of children's groups claims YouTube has been illegally collecting data on kids

Tim Maytom

YouTube has been accused of improperly collecting the personal data of young children, with a coalition of more than 20 advocacy, consumer and privacy groups filing a complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today.

The coalition, which claims that the Google-owned video platform is violating US child protection laws by collecting data on users aged less than 13 years old, has called for Google to change how it manages content for younger audiences. It is urging the FTC to investigate and sanction Google, and has suggested YouTube should pay fines worth billions of dollars in reparation for allegedly profitting off children's viewing habits.

The coalition, which includes the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), the Centre for Digital Democracy, Consumer Federation of America and 20 other organisations, alleges that despite Google claiming that YouTube is only for those aged 13 and above, it is aware that children use the site. According to the coalition, YouTube collects personal information on child users including location and device identifiers, as well as tracking them across different websites and services, all without first gaining parental consent, which is required by the US Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

"For years, Google has abdicated its responsibility to kids and families by disingenuously claiming YouTube - a site rife with popular cartoons, nursery rhymes, and toy ads - is not for children under 13," said Josh Golin, executive director of the CCFC. "Google profits immensely by delivering ads to kids and must comply with COPPA. It's time for the FTC to hold Google accountable for its illegal data collection and advertising practices."

The complaint filed with the FTC points to the fact that some of the most popular channels on YouTube are explicitely directed at children, including LittleBabyBum, with 14.6m subscribers and 14bn views, and ChuChuTV Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs, which boasts 15.9m subscribers and over 10bn views.

The coalition also states that Google's Preferred advertising platform includes a 'parenting and family' lineup which major advertisers can pay a premium to appear on, and that evidence including disclosures from content providers, public statements by YouTube executives and the creation of the YouTube Kids app all support the claim that Google is aware of the number of children accessing the YouTube service.

"YouTube knows children are watching content on their site, and has created content channels specifically aimed at them, but does not appear to obtain the required parental consent before collecting information about them," said Katie McInnis, policy counsel for the Consumers Union. "Google has the responsibility to be COPPA-compliant and ensure that children can safely watch the programs designed and promoted for kids. These practices present serious concerns that warrant the FTC's attention."

A spokesperson for Google said that while it had not yet received the complaint, the firm has always made the protection of kids and families a top priority.

"We will read the complaint thoroughly and evaluate if there are things we can do to improve," said the spokesperson. "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."

According to a new report from BuzzFeed, Google is currently working on an algorithm-free version of the YouTube Kids app that will instead only display recommended videos from channels hand-picked by a team of YouTube curators.

This whitelisted version of the app will exist alongside the algorithmic version, and will be an option that parents can select, according to a source familiar with YouTube's plans. YouTube has not confirmed that such a version of the app is in development, but stated that "we are always working to update and improve YouTube Kids".