YouTube is improperly collecting children’s data, groups say

(Associated Press/File)

NEW YORK — A coalition of more than 20 consumer advocacy groups is expected to file a complaint with federal officials Monday claiming that YouTube has been violating a children’s privacy law.

The complaint contends that YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, has been collecting and profiting from the personal information of young children on its main site, although the company says the platform is meant only for users 13 and older.

The coalition said YouTube has failed to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a federal law that requires companies to obtain consent from parents before collecting data on children younger than 13.


The groups are asking for an investigation and penalties from the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces the law.

“Google has been continually growing its child-directed service in the United States and all over the world without any kind of acknowledgment of this law and its responsibilities,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, one of the groups leading the coalition. “It’s living in a world of online fiction and denied that it’s serving children.”

YouTube defines its main site and app as destinations for viewers 13 and older. It directs younger children to the stand-alone YouTube Kids app, which contains a filtered set of videos from the main site.

YouTube’s distinction between its main product and YouTube Kids is significant because of the rules on disclosure and parental consent that kick in for sites with “actual knowledge” that they are trafficking in the personal information of children under 13.

Those rules were first detailed in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, known as COPPA. The FTC expanded the act in 2012, noting that it needed to be updated for the age of mobile devices. The revised rules made clear that companies must obtain parental consent before collecting details that could be used to identify, contact, or locate a child. These included photos, video, audio, and the location of a child’s mobile device.


In the complaint that will be filed on Monday with the commission, the advocacy groups say YouTube is able to collect data on children under 13 through its main site, where cartoons, nursery-rhyme videos, and those ever-popular toy-unboxing clips garner millions of views.

YouTube’s terms of service hold that visitors to its main site are affirming that they are at least 13 and agree to Google’s privacy policy, which outlines how the company collects information on individuals and then tailors ads and services to them. By watching a YouTube video, the policy says, viewers give Google permission to collect data tied to their device, location, browsing habits, phone number, and more.

The groups say this kind of tracking requires parental notification and consent first. While companies can collect some of that information from children to deliver relevant ads, they are supposed to obtain parental consent to use it for more tailored purposes, like behavioral advertising or profiles of individuals.

“We haven’t received the letter yet but look forward to reviewing it,” a spokeswoman for the FTC said in an e-mail. She added that the commission took enforcement of COPPA “very seriously” and had brought more than two dozen cases tied to the rule.

YouTube provided an e-mailed statement that said the platform had not yet received the complaint but “protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us.”