Google and YouTube Are Invading Children’s Privacy

On April 9, CCFC and the Center for Digital Democracy took a groundbreaking step to protect children’s privacy: We filed a Federal Trade Commission Complaint detailing how Google is breaking the law by collecting personal data from children on YouTube without parental consent. Our landmark complaint is supported by a coalition of 23 consumer and privacy groups. 

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, is the only federal law regulating how to handle kids’ online data, and its demands are relatively straightforward: if you run a site for kids, or if you know kids are using your site, you need to a) tell their parents exactly what kind of personal data you collect, and b) get verifiable parental permission before you gather any information from or about kids. There’s other stuff, too, but those are the basic requirements, and Google doesn’t even try to meet them. Instead, their privacy policy says that YouTube isn’t for children under 13, and that kids shouldn’t use it. 

But actions and ad contracts speak louder than fine-printed privacy policies. YouTube is one of the most popular kids’ websites in the world, and they know it. Eighty percent of American 6 – 12 year olds use YouTube, and in 2017, it was the most recognizable brand among kids 6 – 12. Many of YouTube’s most successful channels feature nursery rhyme videos, cartoons, toy ads, and other content designed to capture young children’s attention. YouTube provides how-to guides for creators making videos for kids. Google even runs a program called Google Preferred that lets advertisers pay extra money to get their ads onto the most popular kid-directed channels, like Ryan Toy Review and ChuChuTV Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs. 

In short: Despite the presence of literally millions of child-directed videos, and despite promising advertisers access to kids via YouTube ads, Google pretends that they aren’t responsible for the children on YouTube. Google knows kids are there, and they are not taking steps to protect their privacy. So we are. 

Our coalition is calling on the FTC to hold Google accountable for serious COPPA violations: collecting billions of data points from millions of children and making untold amounts of money off the use and sale of that data without ever telling parents. This illegally-collected data includes things like location and browsing habits, and Google uses it to target ads to people across the internet, including across different devices. 

Google’s Algorithms vs Your Child is not a fair fight. Children are already developmentally vulnerable to ads, and targeted, data-based advertising is especially unfair. Kids can’t possibly comprehend that corporations are keeping track of the videos they watch on YouTube in order to serve them targeted ads. And even most adults have trouble understanding the complex ways our personal information is traded and sold online. 

That’s why COPPA exists in the first place: it’s a tool meant to empower parents to keep their children’s information out of this vast, shadowy data marketplace. But Google is not giving parents that opportunity. Instead, they are skirting the law and profiting off of children without parents’ knowledge or consent. 

With a new story breaking seemingly every day about how our personal data is misused, the majority of Americans now believe that big tech companies should be regulated. We agree with them, and we think the best place to start is by enforcing the laws we already have. 

Google is one of the most powerful companies in the world. This is about more than just the law, and more than privacy and data. It’s about the responsibility that all of us – but especially the most powerful among us – have to children.