By Trevor Clawson

YouTube has just become the latest social media company to face scrutiny from regulators over data protection and this time it’s the privacy of children that sits at the heart of the controversy.

The outcome could be expensive for the Google-owned business. On April 9, a total of US 23 child advocacy groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, asking the regulator to impose a fine that could amount to billions of dollars.

YouTube stands accused of collecting the personal information of children under the age of thirteen, including details of location, device identifiers and phone numbers. All this data can be used – for marketing purposes – to track individuals not only in terms of their activities on the Youtube platform but also across a wide range of third-party websites and digital services. According to the advocacy groups, this contravenes the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and lays the online video giant open to stiff financial penalties. But this is more than a local difficulty.The questions raised by the action against YouTube have a resonance far beyond the US and raises questions about how we protect children from aggressive or inappropriate marketing.

YouTube’s Child Audience

For instance, here in Britain, children love the platform. According to research published by UK media regulator Ofcom in 2017, 48% of three to four-year-olds watch Youtube, a figure that rises to 90% of among twelves to fifteen age group. Perhaps more importantly, the Ofcom report also found that Youtube was the most recognised and loved brand among young teens. Meanwhile in the US, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) – one of the groups bringing the legal action – says that the platform is watched by 80% of six to twelve-year-olds.

That popularity is driven – at least in part – by YouTube Kids, a dedicated channel offering child-friendly programme, but also protected by a suite of parental control tools.

But Children also have access to the wider universe of video content and from beauty tips to music videos and full-length TV shows, there is a huge amount on offer to those in their teens and younger.

Is Child Privacy At Risk

YouTube Action Raises Global Child Privacy Issues

According to the US advocacy groups, YouTube is putting child privacy at risk by ignoring its own rules.

“For years, Google has abdicated its responsibility to kids and families by disingenuously claiming YouTube – a site rife with popular cartoons, nursery rhymes, and toy ads — is not for children under 13,” said CCFC executive director Josh Golin.

“Google profits immensely by delivering ads to kids and must comply with Coppa. It’s time for the FTC to hold Google accountable for its illegal data collection and advertising practices.”

The Data Problem

But is this really a problem. Well, the concerns of the CCFC are underscored by research published in December by London-based company Superawesome,  a provider of technology designed to protect children online.

SuperAwsome’s research found that systems intended to capture adult data are also harvesting vast amounts of information on children. To be more precise, the company says that before a child reaches the age of thirteen, more than 72 million data points might have been captured by apps, games and other services.

SuperAwesome CEO, Dylan Collins says the vast scale of tracking activity reflects changing media consumption habits. Put simply, more young people spending increasing amounts of time online,  has inevitably meant that technology designed for adults is capturing data on children who are not (legally) at an age where they can give permission for that information to be used.

“Silicon Valley has worked on the assumption that internet users are adults,” says  Collins.

“But today, kids are spending 10 as much time online and this is just the beginning. The growth in both numbers of under thirteen  kids online and the amount of time they’re spending will only continue.”

And therein lies the problem for the industry. Under the US Children’s Online Data Protection Act (COPA) internet users under the age of thirteen should be operating in a no data, no tracking environment and the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation imposes similar protections. But as Collins sees it, the infrastructure and ecosystem are not in place to enable service providers to create services and apps that are not data-safe for children.

“Marketing agencies and digital companies want to do the right thing, but they haven’t had the tools build the services,” he said.

Styling itself as Kidtech company,  SuperAwesome was created to provide those tools and according to a report by professional services firm PwC, this is a market that is set to grow rapidly.  PwC predicts that market for advertising aimed at children will be worth $1.29bn by 2019. This will, in turn, drive the development of the Kidtech sector to ensure that advertisers and agencies stay compliant with the law.

YouTube Action Raises Global Child Privacy Issues

“The market is set to expand at 20% to 30% a year,” says Collins.

Cultural Issues

But Collins acknowledges that there are cultural issues to address. “We have to educate people,” he says.

“We have to remind them that there are privacy laws and that there are children of eight, nine or ten years old who are being tracked. That’s not just wrong, it’s dangerous.”

There is no silver bullet. For instance, in theory at least, YouTube does not permit under thirteens to subscribe, except via the parental controls, but it still possible for non-subscribers to watch a huge range of content and in doing so trigger tracking technologies. Equally, real ages can’t effectively be checked by platforms such as Facebook and YouTube.

So prevention depends on content providers, advertisers and app developers complying with data protection laws which are actually quite strict. These are backed up by industry standards, such as the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) code, which also has child protection at its heart.

But advertising-funded services are predicated on tracking and analysis of data in order to target the messaging.  It will take both technology and industry commitment to ensure that children can consume content, play games and interact with others in a no-data environment.