Court Rekindles Children's Privacy Battle With YouTube, Hasbro, Others

A federal appellate court has revived a class-action complaint by parents of young YouTube users who alleged that the company and various channel operators violated children's privacy by tracking them for advertising purposes.

In a decision issued Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act doesn't prevent the parents from pursuing their claims.

The federal law prohibits website operators and apps from collecting tracking data from children under 13, without parental consent.

That statute overrides inconsistent state laws, and does not allow individuals to sue over violations.

The appellate ruling reversed U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson's dismissal of the lawsuit.

The new ruling stems from a battle that began in 2019, when California resident Nicole Hubbard sued YouTube and channel operators -- including Hasbro, the Cartoon Network, Mattel, and DreamWorks -- on behalf of her child.

She alleged in a class-action complaint that her 5-year-old child watched YouTube channels that are aimed at young children -- including Ryan ToysReview, Hasbro's “My Little Pony Official,” and CookieSwirlC.

Her lawsuit, later joined by other parents, came around two months after Google agreed to pay $170 million to settle allegations by the Federal Trade Commission and New York Attorney General that YouTube violated the federal children's privacy law by collecting data from viewers younger than 13.

The parents claimed that the companies violated state laws by collecting tracking data from children.

Among other assertions, the parents said the alleged data collection amounted to “intrusion upon seclusion” -- a privacy claim that can be brought in California, and that involves “highly offensive” conduct.

Freeman, who presides in the Northern District of California, threw out the lawsuit, ruling that the gist of the claims stemmed from the federal privacy law -- which only allows the Federal Trade Commission and state officials to bring enforcement actions.

Lawyers for the children appealed, arguing to the 9th Circuit that the claims in the complaint were based in state privacy laws, as opposed to the federal children's privacy law.

Class counsel specifically argued that the claims were only “parallel” to the federal law, and “based on Google’s violations of their traditional, preexisting state law rights.”

Google countered that the “core of each claim” was the alleged violation of the federal law. (Hasbro, Mattel and the other channel operators added in separate papers that the complaints didn't allege that the channel operators actually collected data from children.)

The dispute drew the attention of the Chamber of Commerce, which sided with Google. The business association argued in a friend-of-the-court brief that Congress intended to create a “uniform, federal standard” that would govern children's privacy.

The 9th Circuit judges rejected Google's argument, ruling that the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act doesn't preclude individuals from bringing parallel claims rooted in state law.

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