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Child advocacy groups ask FTC to fine Google tens of billions of dollars

A total of 23 child advocacy groups filed a complaint against YouTube with the FTC today, April 9. If the FTC applied the maximum allowable fine to YouTube parent company Google, as requested in the complaint, the total would amount to “tens of billions of dollars.”

Coincidental but not directly related to the group’s complaint to the FTC, reports surfaced recently that YouTube will start using humans rather than algorithms to screen videos for YouTube Kids,

The complaint asks the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether YouTube violates the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). COPPA limits the ways companies can collect data about children under 14.

The law provides that any company that intends to collect data about children under age 13 must first notify and receive consent from the children’s parents.

The complaint, which CNN reported is led by the Center for Digital Democracy and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, charges, “Google has made substantial profits from the collection and use of personal data from children on YouTube. Its illegal collection has been going on for many years and involves tens of millions of U.S. children,”

Google restricts advertisers from targeting age groups under 18. The video website’s Terms of Service state that only people older than 13 can obtain a Google account, which is necessary to sign in to YouTube.

As anyone can test by clicking on a graphic YouTube video link, however, no one needs a Google account to watch YouTube videos. Also, some parents don’t restrict their children from using the parent’s Google accounts. And all a child needs to do to obtain her or his own account is to lie about their age when signing up.

CNN cited The Trendera Files, a report issued in 2017, which states that “45 percent of kids between 8- and 12-years-old have a YouTube Account.”

A spokesperson for Google, YouTube’s parent company, told CNN YouTube Kids does not collect data used in targeting ads and that the stand-alone mobile app is in compliance with all COPPA rules.

“Protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us. We will read the complaint thoroughly and evaluate if there are things we can do to improve,” the Google spokesperson continued. “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.”

Wired reported that the group’s complaint to the FTC states most kids ignore YouTube Kids in favor of YouTube. Wired quoted Josh Grolin, Center for a Commerical Free Childhood executive director saying that while humans may start screening videos for YouTube Kids, “changes to the YouTube Kids app do not absolve Google of its responsibilities to the millions of children that use the main YouTube site.”

According to the complaint, YouTube collected data illegally on an estimated 23 million children during a “period of years.” The complaint requests that the FTC assess the maximum fine of as much as $41,484 per violation, based on a determination that “Google’s violations are particularly egregious.”

Acknowledging that the fine could add up to “civil penalties totaling tens of billions of dollars,” the complaint states that Google is the world’s second richest company, “with a net worth totaling $101.8 billion.” The filing concludes, “Thus, the parties request that the FTC assess civil penalties that will deter Google from violating COPPA again.”

Updated with the corrected number (23) of parties to the FTC complaint and quotes from the complaint about the requested fine.

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