Commentary: I Work to Protect Kids’ Privacy. Here’s Why I’m Calling BS on Google
Growing up, many of us watched cartoons after school and on Saturday mornings. Today, kids have YouTube—anytime they want. And it’s not just cartoons: It’s also movies, nursery rhymes, and videos of other kids opening toys. About 80% of children aged 6 to 12 watch YouTube every day, and many of YouTube’s most popular channels, like Ryan ToysReview and ChuChu TV Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs, are aimed at kids.
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires the operator of a site directed at children or with knowledge that its site is collecting information from children to first give parents notice of its data collection practices and obtain their consent. What does Google (GOOG) do to ensure that YouTube complies with COPPA? Google says that it doesn’t need to comply, because “YouTube is not for children.”
Considering the mounds of kid-directed content it offers, the assertion is absurd—as absurd as posting privacy policies that require a law degree to understand, while designing interfaces simple enough for a 6 year old when it comes to buying things or binge-watching.
My organization, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, is part of a coalition of 23 consumer groups that filed a detailed complaint this week asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the failure of Google to protect the privacy of children using YouTube. In 2018 parlance, we called “BS” on Google.
The news of Cambridge Analytica accessing data of millions of Facebook (FB) users has awakened the U.S. out of its happy “tech is fun” slumber, and helped people grasp that “free” apps and social media platforms come at a very high price—loss of our privacy to a vast, opaque network built on marketing. I bet a few people have recently asked their Amazon (AMZN) Echos: “Alexa, play the Hamilton soundtrack, and also, tell me what you know about where I’ve traveled in the past five years.”
The conversation about regulating tech companies to protect our privacy is long overdue. Front and center in that dialogue should be the needs of children, who are both particularly vulnerable and who will one day be engaged, political adults.
Kids need protection for the same reasons greedy marketers target them. Young children don’t understand the persuasive intent of advertising, so they don’t stand a chance at resisting it, and they’re forming brand preferences now that may last a lifetime. Marketers also know kids will pester parents to buy things, and that parents will give in—this is human nature, not parental failure. In order to target the extremely lucrative child market, companies vacuum up information on children’s preferences and browsing and viewing habits on websites and through Internet-connected toys and devices.
What can parents do to protect their children? Well, COPPA is supposed to empower parents to monitor children’s Internet and device use, and prevent their information from being collected and shared. And on YouTube, there is much to protect them from.
Google collects data like location, viewing, and browsing habits of YouTube users, then employs it to target ads to them. Signing up for a YouTube account requires you be 13, but you don’t need an account to watch videos, so the site collects data from millions of kids every day. Without asking their age, Google is able, through other indicators based on viewing habits, to identify this data as the extra-profitable kid stuff, which marketers most covet. So Google makes a fortune off of kids watching YouTube, and won’t even meet the simple requirements of the one law meant to protect kids online.
With the new enlightenment about Internet privacy risks, we’re hopeful the FTC will swiftly investigate YouTube and require it to comply with COPPA. Though in response to our complaint, Google doubled down on the deceit. The company continues to insist YouTube is not for children, and points to its YouTube Kids app, which has children’s privacy protections as an alternative. But the majority of children are not on YouTube Kids—they’re on the main YouTube site or app, unprotected. Google knows it, no matter what it says to justify turning a blind eye to children’s wellbeing.
David Monahan is campaign manager at Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.