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YouTube to FTC: Don’t Assume Only Kids Are Watching Kids Videos

Ben Brody and Mark Bergen

(Bloomberg) -- Google asked the government to eliminate rules that categorize anyone watching “child-directed” content online as under 13 while regulators revamp privacy regulations that could have a sweeping impact on the company’s YouTube video service.

The Alphabet Inc. unit filed comments with the Federal Trade Commission on Monday as the agency considers changing its rules under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, which regulates how internet companies collect data on young people.

In September, Google agreed to pay $170 million to the FTC to resolve claims that YouTube violated COPPA by serving targeted advertisements to children under 13. In response, YouTube agreed to end personalized ads on any videos deemed “made for kids” starting in January, a potential hit to sales for the company and its thousands of video creators. The FTC settlement also holds creators on the site responsible for future violations, which has sparked panic among some producers on YouTube’s sprawling network.

In its comments, the company argued against FTC rules that automatically identify viewers younger than 13 based on the content of videos.

“This does not match what we see on YouTube, where adults watch favorite cartoons from their childhood or teachers look for content to share with their students,” YouTube wrote in its public comments. “This is why we support allowing platforms to treat adults as adults if there are measures in place to help confirm that the user is an adult viewing kids content.”

One critic of YouTube said the company’s response was inadequate.

“This is a COPPA cop-out by Google,” Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, one of the groups that complained to the FTC about YouTube. “They should be telling creators that they apologize for involving them in their massive multiyear violation of the U.S. law.”

The popularity of kids’ programming has put YouTube in an uncomfortable position. The company has maintained that the site isn’t for children, and doesn’t allow viewers under the age of 13. It created a separate app for kids, but its audience is tiny compared to the full site.

After the FTC settlement, YouTube told creators that they would have to identify when videos are aimed at children under 13. When that happens, YouTube now turns off ads that rely on web browsing behavior and other targeting data, which earn more for YouTube and creators.

On Monday, YouTube also asked the FTC for “balanced and clear guidelines” to help creators comply with COPPA. The company said that content not intended for kids can sometimes involve a traditional kids activity, such as gaming and art. “Are these videos ‘made for kids,’ even if they don’t intend to target kids? This lack of clarity creates uncertainty for creators,” YouTube said.

YouTube doesn’t disclose its sales or break out what portion of the videos on its service are “child-directed.” Indeed, the company likely can’t automatically make such nuanced judgments on the millions of videos it runs online, despite having some of the world’s best technology for identifying and categorizing images and clips.

Read more: YouTube Will Rely on Spotty AI to Comply With FTC Settlement

In recent weeks, some YouTube creators launched a campaign to tell the FTC that rewriting the COPPA rules and the settlement could hurt them financially and reduce the quality of programs. The agency has received thousands of comments on what has previously been a sleepy area of law.

The FTC has issued guidance under COPPA for what constitutes videos “directed to children.” YouTubers in have expressed frustration that the definitions are still too vague.

The FTC also allows sites that aren’t aimed at kids to put in place an age screening for viewers. That way, if kids do end up there, the site’s operators can reduce data collection, although children often lie about their age online. Some creators, including one of those who helped launch the petition to the FTC, have urged YouTube to adopt a comparable solution. YouTube didn’t address that on Monday in its blog.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ben Brody in Washington, D.C. at btenerellabr@bloomberg.net;Mark Bergen in San Francisco at mbergen10@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jillian Ward at jward56@bloomberg.net, Alistair Barr

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