In an era where digital privacy is a growing concern, YouTube finds itself in the spotlight yet again over its advertising practices. Last week, a research report suggested that the video-sharing platform’s use of personalized ads could potentially infringe on the privacy of children watching kid-friendly content. While YouTube has maintained that it restricts data collection and the use of targeted ads on children’s videos, a recent challenge from children’s advocacy group, Fairplay, has put these claims under scrutiny.
Fairplay has alleged that it used Google’s advertising tools to run a targeted ad campaign, aimed at different adult demographics, solely on children’s video channels. The ads were displayed to users within selected consumer segments – including motorcycle enthusiasts, high-end computer aficionados, and avid investors – on well-known channels such as “Cocomelon Nursery Rhymes,” “Talking Tom,” and “Like Nastya.” The group’s ads were placed 1,446 times on YouTube children’s video channels, according to a report received from Google. This new development has raised questions about Google’s compliance with federal children’s privacy rules, prompting Fairplay and three other nonprofit groups to lodge a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for investigation.
YouTube’s Ad Policies Questioned by Fairplay Over Children’s Privacy
YouTube’s advertising practices are under scrutiny once again following a research report last week that suggested YouTube’s data collection and ad targeting could be violating children’s privacy. In response to the report, YouTube stated that it restricts data collection and does not serve targeted ads on children’s videos, a requirement under federal privacy law. However, Fairplay, a leading children’s group, is now disputing the company’s claim.
Fairplay alleges that it ran a $10 ad campaign using advertising tools from YouTube’s parent company, Google, targeting different adult groups exclusively on children’s video channels. The group claims that its ads were shown to specific consumer segments, including motorcycle enthusiasts, high-end computer aficionados, and avid investors. The ads appeared on popular children’s channels, such as "Cocomelon Nursery Rhymes," "Talking Tom," and "Like Nastya." According to Google’s placement report, Fairplay’s ads were placed 1,446 times on children’s video channels.
The FTC Complaint
On Wednesday, Fairplay, the Center for Digital Democracy, and two other nonprofit groups lodged a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). They requested that the FTC investigate Google and YouTube’s data and advertising practices on videos made for children. In a letter to Lina Khan, the FTC chair, the groups cited the new research, stating that it "raises serious questions" about whether Google has violated federal children’s privacy rules.
In response to the complaint, Google spokesperson, Michael Aciman, stated that the report’s conclusions indicate a "fundamental misunderstanding" of how advertising works on content made for children. He asserted that Google does not permit ad personalization on children’s content and prohibits advertisers from targeting children with ads across its products. Google maintains that it continues to uphold the child privacy commitments it made to the FTC.
This is not the first time Fairplay and the Center for Digital Democracy have urged the FTC to investigate Google and YouTube over children’s privacy. In 2018, the two organizations, along with 21 other groups, accused the company of improperly collecting data from children who watched children’s videos. In 2019, the FTC and the state of New York found that the company had illegally collected personal information from children, profiting by using this data to target them with ads. Google and YouTube agreed to pay a record $170 million to settle the regulators’ accusations.
The ongoing debate around children’s online privacy underscores the need for robust and effective regulations in the digital space. As tech companies continue to expand their reach, it is crucial to ensure that the privacy of vulnerable users, such as children, is adequately protected. Further investigations by the FTC could potentially lead to stricter policies and more significant penalties for violations, setting a precedent for other companies in the industry.