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FTC mulls disabling ads on some YouTube channels as child rights activists call for a separate platform

Screenshot from YouTube Kids app

On July 8, Bloomberg reported that US’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has proposed that YouTube disable advertising on individual channels to ensure that the platform aligns with American law on protecting children’s privacy. The FTC chairman, Joseph Simons, along with its commissioner, Noah Phillips, in a July 1 phone conversation with Commercial-Free Childhood (CFC) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) had suggested that YouTube wouldn’t need to move all children’s content to a separate platform, as children’s rights advocates have proposed. Instead, individual channels could disable advertising to make the site align with American law on collecting information on children under the age of 13 without parental permission.

In response to the July 1 call, the two organisations wrote a letter on July 3 that argued that merely disabling presentation of ads would not stop data collection. The letter was released to the media on July 8.

What did the July 3 letter say?

  • Problem with letting children’s content remain on the main YouTube site
  • Problem with shifting the burden of responsibility to content creators to opt out of “interest-based” advertising
  • Reiterated their call for “structural separation of the child-directed channels and videos, substantial civil penalties”

This letter basically recalled the demands that the two organisations had raised in their June 25 letter. Here are the key takeaways from that letter:

  • Any consent order must mandate “meaningful” changes in YouTube’s business practices, such as:
    • a separate platform for all child-directed content where “targeted advertising, commercial data collection, links to other sites or content, or autoplay” are prohibited
    • remove all kids’ content from the main YouTube platform
  • Call for sanctioning Google “at a scale commensurate with the company’s unprecedented and unparalleled violation of COPPA” in the form of substantial civil penalties
  • “Outlandish” defence by Google that YouTube is not for children under 13, and hence parental consent is not required. It doesn’t take into account, CCFC and CDD allege, that YouTube is the number one online destination for kids, something that Google and YouTube executives have acknowledged in public fora time and again
  • Google profited by violating the law and the privacy of tens of millions of children

FTC’s investigation into YouTube

FTC’s investigation into YouTube, which began in 2018 after numerous complaints from consumer groups and privacy advocates, is reportedly coming to a close. The crux of the complaints was that YouTube violates the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and FTC’s COPPA Rule as it improperly collected children’s data without parental consent.

The Bloomberg report said that according to children’s privacy experts, the settlement between FTC and YouTube could resemble the February 2019 settlement between TikTok and FTC in which the FTC fined Musical.ly, which had merged with TikTok in 2018, $5.7 million for illegally collecting the names, email addresses, pictures and location of kids under age 13, after a settlement was reached between the FTC and TikTok. The penalty is the highest since COPPA was put in place in 1998. In response, TikTok said that it would require new users to verify their age and prompt existing users to do so as well.

Read more: US government investigating YouTube for violating children’s privacy

Read more: YouTube’s renewed focus on protecting children online

Read more: YouTube’s continued struggles with privacy and content moderation

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