Privacy Groups File YouTube Complaint at FTC

A host of online privacy groups are filing a complaint Monday (April 9) with the Federal Trade Commission against YouTube and parent, Google, seeking potentially tens of billions of dollars in fines for what they say has been the company’s collection and sharing of children’s information in violation of federal law.

That is according to a copy of the complaint obtained by Multichannel News, which says there is a wealth of evidence that YouTube is violating COPPA by collecting the personal data of children without notice and consent, and the FTC should investigate and take enforcement action.

The Center for Digital Democracy has joined with the Consumers Union and a couple dozen others to file the complaint.

They say Google has made "substantial profits" from collecting and sharing personal data from kids via YouTube without their parents permission and in violation of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

Related: Activist Groups Push Edge Privacy Pledge

They want the FTC to stop them from doing so, monitor them for future violations hit them with civil penalties "that demonstrate that the FTC will not permit violations of COPPA."

They argue that because Google knows a lot of kids are on YouTube—“as evidenced by disclosures from content providers, public statements by YouTube executives, and the creation of the YouTube Kids app, which provides additional access and because YouTube's privacy policy "discloses that it collects many types of personal information, including geolocation, unique device identifiers, mobile telephone numbers, and persistent," the company is collecting information from kids under 13, then using it to target ads, and without notice or "verifiable consent" from parents. That, they say violates COPPA, which the FTC is empowered to enforce.

Given that the FTC can levy up to $41,484 per COPPA violation, they reckon that would come to tens of billions of dollars (they calculate Google's net worth at $108 billion) for what they say are particularly egregious violations given that they say Google "had actual knowledge of both the large number of child-directed channels on YouTube and the large numbers of children using YouTube."

Related: FTC Settles With Website Over Kids Info Collection

The complaint comes in the wake of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica data sharing incident, as well as at a time when edge providers are under increased scrutiny from Washington over privacy and other issues, and the FTC is under increased scrutiny for its ability to police online privacy since it has been deeded principal oversight of online privacy by the FCC's new Restoring Internet Freedom order.

"As the House author of COPPA, I believe these are credible allegations and urge the Commission to investigate them as soon as possible," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has been one of the strongest Senate voices for online child protections.

"We believe we’re at a pivotal moment with regard to the tech industry and its obligations to families, given Facebook/CA coverage, industry whistleblowers on tech-addicting products and the GDPR (opens in new tab) [the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations that kick in next month]," said CDD Executive director Jeff Chester. "COPPA is the only US federal law on consumer privacy and gives the FTC enforcement authority over the industry in terms of how it gathers data from children."

Related: Groups Tell FTC Smart Watches Can Endanger kids

"I think the FTC is being awakened from its long digital data privacy slumber," said Chester.

“While we haven’t received the complaint, protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us," said a YouTube spokesperson. "We will read the complaint thoroughly and evaluate if there are things we can do to improve. Because YouTube is not for children, we’ve invested significantly in the creation of the YouTube Kids app to offer an alternative specifically designed for children.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.