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YouTube gets slapped with $170 million FTC fine for violating children’s privacy

YouTube gets slapped with $170 million FTC fine for violating children’s privacy
[Photo: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash]

You know that old Simpsons scene where the preacher’s wife, Helen Lovejoy, wails, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” Well, the FTC has thought of the children, and YouTube’s parent company, Google, is paying the price.

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Google has agreed to pay a record $170 million fine for failing to properly protect children’s privacy on YouTube, the New York Times reports. The FTC and New York’s attorney general launched an investigation into the company’s practices following a written complaint addressed to the FTC from various consumer advocacy groups, which claimed that the video streaming giant violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA.

The FTC alleged that the world’s favorite video site had been collecting personal information and using that data to target ads toward those precious angels for years without parental consent, despite the fact that the practice is illegal. COPPA prohibits websites from collecting personal data, like home addresses, from children under 13 without a parent’s verifiable permission. While YouTube wasn’t asking for kids’ addresses, it was tracking their web browsing without their parents’ consent and then reportedly selling millions of dollars of ads based on that data.

Google has always insisted that the regular version of YouTube is not for children, but until this week it had never offered a web version of its YouTube Kids app, which restricts content based on age and disables certain features such as commenting. Per The Times, YouTube “also marketed itself as a top destination for young children to advertisers, even as it told some advertising companies that no compliance with the children’s privacy law was needed because it did not have viewers younger than 13.” Anyone else read that line and actually LOL?

To settle the charges, YouTube agreed to pay $170 million, of which $136 million will go to the FTC and $34 million to New York. The sum represents the largest civil penalty ever obtained by the FTC in a children’s privacy case, according to the Times, making the $5.7 million that the agency levied this year against the owner of TikTok look like change collected from underneath the couch cushions at Google’s HQ. That said, $136 million just isn’t all that much for Google, which has a valuation in the hundreds of billions.

Reached for comment, Google directed Fast Company to its blog post on the matter. To make the site safer for kids, the company says that “starting in four months, we will treat data from anyone watching children’s content on YouTube as coming from a child, regardless of the age of the user. This means that we will limit data collection and use on videos made for kids only to what is needed to support the operation of the service.”

To identify content made for kids, “creators will be required to tell us when their content falls in this category, and we’ll also use machine learning to find videos that clearly target young audiences, for example those that have an emphasis on kids characters, themes, toys, or games.” So at least all those creepy kids videos won’t have targeted ads.

While the FTC and New York may be patting themselves on the back, skeptics are likely to point out that Google promised to rectify its behavior by simply agreeing to actually follow the law instead of flouting it. One FTC commissioner, Rohit Chopra, has already taken to Twitter to voice his disapproval of the settlement, calling it a “giveaway to Google.” At least someone is still thinking of the children.

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