Cicilline, Fortenberry Ask FTC and DOJ to Consider Child Privacy Violations by YouTube in Any Google Settlement

Aug 7, 2019

WASHINGTON – Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Chair David N. Cicilline (RI-01) and Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (NE-01) sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) last week requesting that they include strong remedies for violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by YouTube or its parent company, Alphabet Inc, in any settlement.

 

“Large technology platforms have used our personal data to make money hand over fist for years, but many of us didn’t know that they were using the same tools to break the law and harvest our children’s data as well,” Cicilline said. “There is nothing more important than the safety of our children. That’s why the FTC and DOJ must act with urgency to deter future data collection, ad targeting, or any other COPPA violations.”

 

“With success should come responsibility. Parents should have confidence that their kids are safe online and that tech giants like Google are respecting their privacy and not marketing to them,” said Fortenberry, who serves as Ranking Member on House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and State and Foreign Operations.

 

This letter to the FTC follows a letter sent by Cicilline, who chairs the House Antitrust Subcommittee, and Fortenberry to Google about their COPPA violations in September 2018. Google denied any wrongdoing despite significant evidence to the contrary.

 

The full text of the letter sent by Cicilline and Fortenberry is embedded below. A PDF copy of the letter can be downloaded by clicking here.

 

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July 30, 2019

 

The Honorable Joseph H. Hunt                                  The Honorable Joseph Simons

Assistant Attorney General                                         Chairman

Civil Division                                                              Federal Trade Commission

U.S. Department of Justice                                         600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW                                   Washington, DC 20580         

Washington, DC 20530-0001

The Honorable Noah Phillips                                     The Honorable Christine Wilson
Commissioner                                                             Commissioner
Federal Trade Commission                                        Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW                                   600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20580                                              Washington, DC 20580

The Honorable Rohit Chopra                                     The Honorable Rebecca Slaughter
Commissioner                                                             Commissioner
Federal Trade Commission                                        Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW                                   600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20580                                              Washington, DC 20580

Dear Assistant Attorney General Hunt, Chairman Simons, Commissioner Phillips, Commissioner Chopra, Commissioner Slaughter, and Commissioner Wilson:

 

We write regarding reports that the Federal Trade Commission has finalized its settlement with Google for violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) for content on YouTube, Google’s video streaming service.

 

As you may know, last year we sent a letter to Google raising concerns about its collection of children’s personal information on YouTube in violation of COPPA following a complaint filed with the Commission by a coalition of privacy and child advocacy groups. In particular, we raised concerns with Google’s reported algorithmic targeting of children on YouTube, actual knowledge of children’s use of YouTube, and breadth of content directed toward children on YouTube.

 

In response, Google claimed it had not violated the law because children’s use of YouTube is a violation of the company’s terms of service. Specifically, Google claimed that it “prohibit[s] the use of YouTube by children under the age of 13, and do[es] not encourage the use of YouTube by children.”

 

This response, of course, was deeply unsatisfying given the significant evidence to the contrary. As a coalition of consumer and privacy advocates documented in a complaint they filed with the Commission in April 2018, Google collects personal information from millions of children using YouTube without first providing direct notice to parents and obtaining their verifiable consent.  These actions are a violation of COPPA. 

 

YouTube also financially benefits from interfacing with millions of children every day without oversight or transparency.  Evidence shared with our offices demonstrates that YouTube is the most popular destination for children on the Internet. Content on YouTube—such as videos involving children’s toys and nursery rhymes—is clearly directed at children of various ages under 13.  It is also likely that YouTube’s algorithms are designed to keep children on YouTube through functions like AutoPlay and video recommendations.

 

Although we are encouraged by the Commission’s investigation of this conduct, it is unclear whether the suggested remedy adopted by the Commission will adequately address Google’s pattern of violating COPPA. It is critical that the Justice Department settlement is commensurate with the breadth and severity of Google’s ongoing violation of COPPA.

 

For example, we believe the Commission can create a principled transparent approach for how children interface with these online platforms.  Remedial actions including civil penalties and future oversight are reasonable considerations to ensure future compliance.

 

In light of these concerns, we believe that any settlement with Google should include the following:

 

1.     Ensure the deletion of user data for users under the age 13;

 

2.     Review all channels and videos directed at children from YouTube and move them to YouTube Kids.

 

3.     Establish and employ a means for third-party qualified human reviewers to assure that programming is appropriate for children;

 

4.     Identify a means to require opt-in by a parent on YouTube Kids, for any user under 13, thereby only allowing access once this proactive step is employed;

 

5.     Require establishment of policies and procedures on YouTube Kids or any platform dedicated for children to protect children’s privacy. It is our understanding that YouTube Kids presently employs the following policies, and they should be enshrined in a decision governing practices going forward:

 

a.     No data collection for commercial purposes. Any data collected for “internal purposes” must be clearly identified as to what is being collected, for what purpose, and who has access to the data. It may not be sold to any third parties.

 

b.     No links out to other sites or online services.

 

c.     No targeted marketing.

 

d.     No marketing disguised as content or product or brand integration, including influencer marketing.

 

7.     Require an annual audit by a qualified, independent auditor to ensure compliance with all aspects of the consent decree. Make all audits publicly available without redaction on the Commission’s website within 30 days of receipt.

 

8.     Restrict launch of any new child-directed service until it has been reviewed and approved by an independent panel of experts – including child development and privacy experts –to be appointed by the FTC.

 

9.     Publish documentation of Google’s compliance with the consent decree as reported to the FTC.

 

YouTube has grown substantially and is woven into the daily lives of children around the globe.  It is important that we know what content our children are watching.  Without proper disclaimers for parents and a required opt-in for children to YouTube Kids, YouTube will continue to build long-term users as early as possible.  Access to children requires the highest level of responsibility for companies like Google.  It is up to you to send the message that tech companies must put children’s wellbeing before corporate profits.

 

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

David N. Cicilline                                                                  

Member of Congress

 

 

Jeff Fortenberry

Member of Congress