Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., asked the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday to investigate YouTube and its parent company Google based on evidence the video platform may have violated federal children’s privacy law.
The senators’ letter to the agency follows a New York Times report on research by ad transparency platform Adalytics that found YouTube’s ad-targeting system served ads for adults on videos designated for children, potentially incidentally leading to the collection of data on users under 13. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act requires that companies obtain parental consent before gathering data on users under the age of 13.
According to the Times report, Adalytics found more than 300 ads for adult products on nearly 100 YouTube videos that the platform had designated as “made for kids.” Clicking on the ads sent users to webpages that contain trackers, potentially leading to the collection of data on children.
This isn’t the first time that YouTube and Google have come under pressure for allegedly profiting off children’s data. In 2019, Google and YouTube paid $170 million to settle lawsuits filed by the FTC and the state of New York charging that YouTube had collected personal information from children without their parent’s consent. Under the settlement, YouTube also agreed to create a system identifying children’s content to avoid targeted advertising against children.
“There is no evidence that Google and YouTube violated their 2019 agreement with the FTC,” the Times stated in its report.
A repeat offense could violate the agreement it reached with the FTC.
“This behavior by YouTube and Google is estimated to have impacted hundreds of thousands, to potentially millions, of children across the United States,” Blackburn and Markey wrote in the letter to FTC Chair Lina Khan. “As such, YouTube and Google may have violated COPPA — as well as its 2019 FTC consent decree — in an egregious manner.”
Google vehemently disagreed with Adalytics findings.
“Personalized advertising has never been allowed on YouTube Kids, and in January 2020 we expanded this to anyone watching “made for kids” content on YouTube, regardless of their age,” Farrell Sklerov, a Google spokesperson, told CyberScoop in an email. “The report makes completely false claims and draws uninformed conclusions based solely on the presence of cookies, which are widely used in these contexts for the purposes of fraud detection and frequency capping — both of which are permitted under COPPA. The portions of this report that were shared with us didn’t identify a single example of these policies being violated.”
Both Markey, who is the original author of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, and Blackburn are members of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has made children’s privacy a top focus in recent months. Last month, the committee passed an updated version of Markey’s COPPA 2.0 and the Kids Online Safety Act, which was co-led by Blackburn.
Two groups that called for the 2019 investigation, Fairplay and Center for Digital Democracy, said the news article raises important questions about whether Google is complying with the 2019 settlement.
“The FTC must launch an immediate and comprehensive investigation of Google and, if they confirm this report’s explosive allegations, seek penalties and injunctive relief commensurate with the systematic disregard of the law by a repeat offender,” wrote Josh Golin, executive director at Fairplay. “Young children should be able to watch age-appropriate content on the world’s biggest video platform with their right to privacy guaranteed, full stop.”