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The official terms of service that govern consumers’ uses of YouTube state that all users must be at least 13 years of age. In establishing that rule, the company complies with the letter of the law, namely, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (or Coppa), which demands that companies obtain explicit permission from parents before collecting any data about the online behaviors of children younger than 13 years.
But as anyone who has ever interacted with or been an adolescent knows, it is unlikely that the kids are reading those terms of service, staying off YouTube, or limiting themselves to the more child-friendly content on the YouTube Kids app. Google, which owns YouTube, insists that it is doing all it can, by publishing the age limit and pushing users who admit their young age to the Kids app. But not everyone agrees. In particular, several lawmakers and activists have alleged that the company is failing to protect the privacy and safety of young users, and thus that it is liable for the outcomes. These observers note the extensive content that is clearly targeted toward children that appears on the main YouTube site, including toy review sites and ChuChu TV. Some of these channels rank among the most watched content on YouTube.
This evidence implies that YouTube actively seeks to attract young viewers, and of course, the company tracks all users’ viewing activities. Thus, information about minors and their online behaviors is being collected without their parents’ permission. On YouTube Kids, rules prohibit any targeted advertising to children, nor does the company track precise behaviors. But those prohibitions are not in place on YouTube, even when the content mainly appeals to young children. Accordingly, those impressionable viewers likely are receiving precisely targeted advertising communications—which also means that Google is earning substantial advertising revenues from its advertisers for these practices.
Google’s worries also are not limited to YouTube. A lawsuit by the New Mexico attorney general alleges that, in collaboration with game developers, it has been tracking young users’ locations through several gaming apps that it hosts. The developers then sell these data to advertisers, which reach the consumers through the same channels. Google insists that its policies address the problem, by issuing mandates that advertisers avoid targeting children. Another justification might argue that if young users lie about their age and claim to be old enough not to need their parents’ permission, then Google cannot do much about it. However, the increasingly vast data that it maintains about every user contradicts this claim, and activists thus assert that if it really wanted to, Google could easily ensure that young users were limited to YouTube Kids.

Discussion Questions:
1. Does Google want to limit children to YouTube Kids? Why or why not?
2. How much responsibility do Google and YouTube have for keeping children’s data private?

 

Source: Sapna Maheshwari, “New Pressure on Google and YouTube Over Children’s Data,” The New York Times, September 20, 2018

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