As YouTube, Google, and Twitter crack down on peaceful channels, censor alternative media, and allow child exploitation videos to flourish, the Federal Trade Commission has slapped the tech giant with a $170 million fine and other sanctions for unscrupulously and illegally tracking children.
The fine was the result of a lawsuit against the company for violating the rights of children under 13 years old by tracking them online without their parents' consent.
As Politico reports, under a consent decree, YouTube will require users to self-identify whether videos they upload are meant for children, obtain parental consent before collecting personal information about kids and provide its employees with annual training on how to comply with the children's privacy law. Google and YouTube have also agreed to no longer use personal data previously collected from kids. YouTube will pay $34 million of the $170 million fine to New York.
"This settlement achieves a significant victory for the millions of parents whose children watch child-directed content on YouTube," Republican FTC Chairman Joe Simons and fellow GOP Commissioner Christine Wilson said in a joint statement. "It also sends a strong message to children’s content providers and to platforms."
During the lawsuit, YouTube made it clear that their platform is not intended for children, even pointing it out in their terms of service. However, the New York attorney general's office said it found evidence that a "well-known" YouTube channel repeatedly informed Google that their videos were meant to target children under the age of 13.
“Google and YouTube knowingly and illegally monitored, tracked, and served targeted ads to young children just to keep advertising dollars rolling in,” New York AG Letitia James, a Democrat, said in a statement. “These companies put children at risk and abused their power, which is why we are imposing major reforms to their practices and making them pay one of the largest settlements for a privacy matter in U.S. history."
This lawsuit is certainly landmark and could pave the way for more. As TFTP reported last year, New Mexico filed a lawsuit against them and several app developers for illegally collecting data from children under the age of 13 without parental consent.
According to UPI, New Mexico Attorney General Balderas said last year the companies were violating the 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a federal law, by collecting and selling the data on children.
"These apps can track where children live, play, and go to school with incredible precision," Balderas said of the insidious practice. "These multi-million-dollar tech companies partnering with app developers are taking advantage of New Mexican children, and the unacceptable risk of data breach and access from third parties who seek to exploit and harm our children will not be tolerated in New Mexico."
Tiny Lab Productions, MoPub, AerServ, InMobi PTE, AppLovin and IronSource are also named in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit comes on the heals of a study that showed over 6,000 apps violate COPPA regulations.
As the Free Thought Project reported last year, YouTube was already found to be in violation of COPPA when an independent coalition of advocacy groups conducted their own investigation.
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The coalition is made up of groups including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), the Center for Digital Democracy and 21 other organizations. Within their complaint, the coalition alleges that despite Google claiming YouTube is only for children 13-years-old and over—it knows younger children use the site and it targets them—illegally.
According to COPPA, it is illegal for any operator of a website or online service or a portion thereof that is directed to children, or that has actual knowledge that it collects information from children, from collecting, using or disclosing personal information from a child unless the operator gives parents notice of its data collection practices and obtains verifiable parental consent before collecting the data.
However, according to the complaint filed by the coalition, Google is knowingly violating this law.
According to the complaint:
YouTube also has actual knowledge that many children are on YouTube, as evidenced by
“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, as reported by the Guardian at the time. “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.”
Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy said, “Google has acted duplicitously by falsely claiming in its terms of service that YouTube is only for those who are age 13 or older, while it deliberately lured young people into an ad-filled digital playground.
“Just like Facebook, Google has focused its huge resources on generating profits instead of protecting privacy.”
As TFTP has reported numerous times, children are the last ones YouTube appears to be concerned with, instead targeting those who'd dare challenge the status quo.
As The Free Thought Project first reported in June of 2017, comedian Daniel Tosh raised concerns with objectionable content found on YouTube. Tosh revealed how the "Seven Super Girls" channel—while it is geared to teenage content creators—likely also serves as eye candy for pedophiles looking to indulge in streaming videos of real kids in compromising situations. The channel remains active and unrestricted.
As artist and writer James Bridle noted in an article last year, detailing the vast industry of low-quality, algorithmically-guided children’s content created for youtube: “Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatize, and abuse children, automatically and at scale, and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level."
Indeed, as this complaint and the recent lawsuit allege, these social media giants may very well be complicit in that exploitation.