YouTube Faces New Scrutiny Over Children's Privacy

Google is facing new scrutiny on Capitol Hill over allegations that YouTube gathers personal information from children younger than 13.

"It has come to our attention that the data collection practices of YouTube ... may not be in compliance with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act," David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska) said Monday in a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

That law requires requires website operators to obtain parental consent before knowingly collecting a host of information from children younger than 13 -- including geolocation data, unique device identifiers, mobile telephone numbers and persistent identifiers.

The lawmakers add that they became aware of the allegations after a coalition of 23 advocacy groups -- including the Center for Digital Democracy, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Electronic Privacy Information Center and Public Citizen -- filed a complaint with the FTC.

The terms of service for state that the service is not intended for children younger than 13. Instead, Google offers a child-focused video site, "YouTube Kids," which does not allow behaviorally targeted ads. 

But the advocates argued to the FTC that more children watch clips on YouTube's main site than the specialized YouTube Kids. The complaint references a Common Sense survey that asked parents whether their children under the age of 18 watch videos on YouTube, and if so, on which of the company's services. Forty-four percent of the parents said their children use the general site.

"There is no reason to think that YouTube treats information collected from children any differently than that collected from other users," the complaint states. "Since YouTube collects personal information from all viewers (e.g., IP addresses, device information, geo-location and persistent identifiers) ... without first giving notice and obtaining parental consent, it is not in compliance with COPPA."

Cicilline and Fortenberry are asking Google to answer a host of questions, including why YouTube has channels that "are clearly child-directed," yet it doesn't attempt to prevent users younger than 13 from viewing videos on 

The lawmakers also ask whether Google's algorithms consider the ages of pre-teen users when making recommendations or targeting ads.

Cicilline and Fortenberry have given the company until October 17 to respond to their questions.

A company spokesperson said Monday that YouTube "is not for children," and that the company had "invested significantly in the creation of the YouTube Kids app to offer an alternative specifically designed for children."

"We appreciate all efforts to protect families and children online and look forward to working with members of Congress to answer their questions,” the spokesperson said.

Google's YouTube is also facing a class-action complaint over children's privacy. That matter, brought by South Carolina resident Lashay Manigault-Johnson and her child, is pending in U.S. District Court in Charleston.

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