Google fined $170m for violating children’s privacy on YouTube

Youtube Homepage Close-up on LCD Screen, Chrome Web Browser: Getty Images
Youtube Homepage Close-up on LCD Screen, Chrome Web Browser: Getty Images

US regulators have fined Google $170m (£139m) for allegedly failing to protect children’s privacy on YouTube.

The tech giant had earned millions of dollar by illegally collection the data of children on its video-sharing platform, claimed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the New York attorney general.

By doing so, the FTC said that YouTube violated the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa), which requires sites to get parental consent before collecting the personal information of users who are under 13 years old.

Google agreed to pay $34m to New York and $136m to the FTC – the largest penalty ever received by the US agency in a child privacy case. However, the sums are still a tiny fraction of YouTube’s revenues, with the company estimated to have made $3.36bn in US ad revenue alone last year.

The settlement was passed in a 3-2 vote by the FTC – the two Democrats who voted against it claimed the fine was insufficient punishment for YouTube. Child advocacy groups who helped bring about the government investigation also criticised the size of the fine.

Commissioner Rohit Chopra, a Democrat, noted it was the third time since 2011 that the agency had sanctioned Google for privacy violations. YouTube “baited kids with nursery rhymes, cartoons, and more to feed its massively profitable behavioural advertising business”, Mr Chopra tweeted. “It was lucrative, and it was illegal.”

He said in his dissent that the settlement offered no individual accountability, insufficient remedies and a fine amount that “still allows the company to profit from its lawbreaking”.

Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, said: “It’s extremely disappointing that the FTC isn’t requiring more substantive changes or doing more to hold Google accountable for harming children through years of illegal data collection.”

In a statement following the ruling, New York attorney general Letitia James said Google and YouTube “knowingly and illegally monitored, tracked, and served targeted ads to young children” in order to boost advertising revenues.

“These companies put children at risk and abused their power, which is why we are imposing major reforms to their practices and making them pay one of the largest settlements for a privacy matter in US history,” she said.

FTC chair Joe Simons added: “YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients. Yet when it came to complying with Coppa, the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids. There is no excuse for YouTube’s violation of the law.”

Google is already under a 2011 agreement with the FTC that barred it from misrepresenting its privacy policy and subjected the company to 20 years of regular, independent privacy audits. Google was fined $22.5m in 2012 for violating that settlement when the FTC found it improperly used tracking cookies on Apple’s Safari browser.

A Google spokesperson told The Independent that the firm had no further comment on the latest ruling but shared a blog post detailing changes it has made to the way it handles children’s data.

“Responsibility is our number one priority at YouTube, and nothing is more important than protecting kids and their privacy,” the blog post stated.

One of the main changes that Google is introducing will mean that anyone watching children’s content on YouTube will be treated as a child, meaning any data collected on the viewing habits will be limited and no targeted ads will be served.

Comments and notifications on these videos will also be switched off, though some users say this measure will negatively impact content creators who have built businesses on producing and sharing child-focused content on YouTube.

To help support any YouTube channels affected by the changes, Google said it would establish a $100m fund dedicated to the creation of original children’s content.

The FTC’s fine against YouTube now needs to be approved by a federal court in Washington DC.

Associated Press contributed to this report

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