Last Tuesday on Capitol Hill, the government grilled Facebook’s controversial CEO Mark Zuckerberg about how to move forward in protecting online data privacy. With all eyes on the billionaire, whose company recently sold 50 million users’ data to the Cambridge Analytica firm, it was Democratic Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Ed Markey of Massachusetts who questioned child protection policy. Sen. Markey outright asked the CEO:
“Would you support a child online-privacy bill of rights for kids under 16 to guarantee that that information is not reused for any other purpose without explicit permission from the parents for the kids?”
Facebook’s co-founder tepidly danced around the question, stating he only agreed with such a proposal “in general principle” while leaving plausible deniability on further political action. It was Zuckerberg’s frequent use of this phrase, “in general,” that was later called out by Sen. Durbin, a former lawyer, questioning whether this was the billionaire’s attempt to have his cake and del-eat it too. When later pressed by Sen. Markey, unwilling to accept evasive platitudes, Zuckerberg once again avoided giving a yes or no answer by reaffirming online child protection laws, akin to an internet bill of rights, were “certainly a thing that deserves a lot of discussion.”
This senate exchange comes at a time of significant concern over child privacy and content online. From the sexually graphic content of ElsaGate, which received advertisement funds during the peak of the scandal, to the #YouTubePurge and Adpocalypse, supposedly accidental events that punished news and politics commentators despite no clear violation of terms of service policy, the inconsistent track record on big tech’s self-regulation is no joke — and the users aren’t buying the inaction and fake altruism.
According to a new report from The Guardian, a coalition of more than 20 online advocacy groups have now filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) arguing Google’s video-sharing subsidiary YouTube has been illegally harvesting the data of child users, formally requesting a federal investigation into the platform.
“Google has made substantial profits from the collection and use of personal data from children on YouTube,” the complaint reads. “Illegal collection has been going on for many years and involves tens of millions of U.S. children,” alleging the company is in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a federal law from the 2000’s requiring that online marketers obtain the consent of parents before they can legally collect data on children under the age of 13 — which could result in YouTube paying up to $41,484 per COPPA violation, totaling billions of dollars.
YouTube denies their platform is for kids, of course, citing they make users certify they are at least 13 years of age or older upon making an account on the platform. However, that argument doesn’t wash according to Ariel Fox Johnson, the senior counsel for policy and privacy at Common Sense Media, who argues lots of children are able to bypass the age verification quite easily. In fact, she argues it’s within the company’s interest since their business model is heavily reliant on a growing audience to market to and sell data from, something that is emphasized by the countless YouTube channels clearly targeting kids.
The coalition documents further accuse Google of having “actual knowledge” of these exploits within their interest, potentially using the data to enhance online advertisement campaigns from third-party firms — very similar to the Cambridge Analytica scandal that’s currently plaguing Facebook.
“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,” argued Jeffrey Chester, reigning executive director of the coalition’s central group the Center for Digital Democracy, who recently gave a comment to The New York Times. “It’s living in a world of online fiction and denied that it’s serving children.”
TrigTent has found the opposite. YouTube does acknowledge they are serving a child audience— which was the whole justification behind the company’s heavily flawed Trusted Flaggers Program. YouTube just chooses to deny their audience age-range when it’s both legally and morally convenient. In March, the company hired over 10,000 administrators to police loosely defined “hate speech” and “extremist content” they said specifically “endangers children.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Google told CNN:
“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… 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.”
If YouTube wasn’t for children, why police the content on the website supposedly harmful to children? Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, released an article in The Daily Telegraph admitting her own children use the site despite being under the age of 12:
“I’ve seen how our open platform has been a force for creativity, learning and access to information. I’ve seen how activists have used it to advocate for social change, mobilize protests, and document war crimes. I’ve seen how it serves as both an entertainment destination and a video library for the world. I’ve seen how it has expanded economic opportunity, allowing small businesses to market and sell their goods across borders. And I’ve seen how it has helped enlighten my children, giving them a bigger, broader understanding of our world and the billions who inhabit it.”
In her statement, the CEO clearly uses children as an emotional rationale behind the hiring of 10,000 more administrators to police loosely defined “hate speech” and “extremist content” — on a site they claim is not built for children who would be exposed to advertising. Either the CEO doesn’t know her own terms of service policy or kids are useful for the platform’s agenda until they are not.
About 80% of children in the United States, between the ages of 6 and 12, have been found using the main YouTube page daily, according to a 2017 survey by research firm Smarty Pants, also cited by the groups in their complaint. Techno-elites want to draw the public attention back to YouTube Kids, an app released in 2015 that is conveniently designed for kids under the age of 12, which have specific policies forbidding interest-based marketing and remarketing to comply with COPPA. An investigation into this app’s marketing wouldn’t have much effect, evidently, but Google knows how the mob structure works — you throw the little guy under the bus, given they have a relatively clean record and hope the dirty big kahuna is left unnoticed.
There’s no doubt the platform has problems with disturbing children’s content, child abuse videos and even radical content from Islamists and Neo-Nazi militants, but TrigTent has discussed YouTube’s continued failings before. There is a need for equal protection under the law, where censorship is rare and free from unjust bias, as well as YouTube’s need to reform monetization policy to best fit creators than anxious advertisers.
As journalist Sapna Maheshwari points out, the groups are seeking to bolster their case through the use screenshots of Barbie advertisements placed on content clearly intended for children — meaning Mattel’s deal with YouTube could be in breach of the COPPA law. Another way they’re working to discredit YouTube’s maturity excuse is the “Google Preferred” settings, which curate the best videos packaged for advertisers — which allegedly include children’s content on the main site.
“Silicon Valley now has a responsibility to figure out how to move from building adult tech into building kid tech,” Dylan Collins, chief executive of SuperAwesome, a privacy technology firm used by companies that market to children, told The New York Times. “I don’t think any company, whether it’s Facebook or YouTube or Snapchat, can hide from the fact that there are about ten times more kids online today than there were six or seven years ago when their products were being designed or built.”