Cicilline, Fortenberry Asking Google For Answers on Privacy Safeguards for Kids

Sep 17, 2018

WASHINGTON – U.S. Congressman David N. Cicilline (D-RI) and U.S. Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) are pressing Google for answers on whether its data collection practices for children using YouTube are in compliance with existing federal law.

“Almost half of all internet users will use YouTube in any given month. Parents should have confidence their kids are safe online and that tech giants like Google are respecting their privacy,” said Cicilline and Fortenberry. “We hope that Google will swiftly address our questions so that we can ensure they are in compliance with existing law.”

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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September 17, 2018

Sundar Pichai
Chief Executive Officer
Google LLC 
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043 USA
 

Dear Mr. Pichai,  

It has come to our attention that the data collection practices of YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, may not be in compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA).  We were alerted to this issue through a complaint filed by a coalition of 23 child and privacy advocacy groups (hereinafter “FTC complaint”) .  The FTC complaint alleges that Google’s YouTube has collected and shared the personally identifiable information of tens of millions of children in violation of COPPA.  

Google’s collection and use of children’s data is regulated by COPPA, which mandates that the operator of a website directed to children, or that has knowledge of children using it, may not collect, use or disclose the personal information of children under the age of 13, unless it gives the child’s parents notice of its data collection practices and obtains verifiable parental consent before collecting the data.   COPPA also requires the operator to conspicuously display an online notice of its information practices when information is collected from children.  YouTube’s terms of service inform its users they are subject to Google’s privacy policy which states that Google may collect information—including geolocation, unique device identifiers and phone numbers—and may sell this information to create “more relevant search results and ads.”   

YouTube’s terms of services state that the website is not intended for children under 13,  but the FTC complaint states that YouTube does not have safeguards to prevent this from happening.  YouTube purports to block this age group from using its website, by only allowing users to create an account if they provide a date of birth showing they are under 13 years old.  However, users under the age of 13 can bypass the age restriction by claiming to be older when creating an account or by logging in with an older person’s account.  In addition, YouTube only requires age verification for posting videos and not for watching videos.  

The FTC complaint also alleges that Google has actual knowledge that children are using YouTube, and that YouTube has a great deal of content directed toward young children, including entertainment, educational programming, and toy reviews.   Some of these channels are primarily targeted toward preschoolers and toddlers and some are tagged with keywords that help direct traffic to those videos, such as “toy,” “kids,” “nursery rhymes,” or “baby.”  Google also provides guidance on how creators can make family-friendly content for YouTube.   

The FTC complaint further alleges that YouTube collects and uses the information of users regardless of age, and sells the data collected from YouTube to advertising services that create targeted advertisements, such as AdWords, DoubleClick and Google Preferred.  The FTC complaint alleges that YouTube does so without giving parental notice or obtaining parental consent before collecting personal information of children under the age of 13.  

We ask Google to provide written responses to the following requests for information: 

1)      Provide all information you have regarding how many children use YouTube, the frequency and duration of their use of the site, the types of content they view, and any other information regarding their viewing habits.

2)       How do you determine that a user is a child?  What information do you collect from children using YouTube? Does YouTube distinguish at all between adult and child users? Is the same data collected from children and adult viewers? Describe all differences between the collection and use of children’s data and that of older users.

3)      Are children’s programs marked with a special flag to prevent data collection? If data is collected from viewers of those channels, is it used to target advertising on YouTube or through any of Google’s other advertising platforms?

4)      You assert that YouTube is only for users age 13 and over. Why don’t you employ an age gate to prevent users under 13 from viewing videos? Why do you have channels on YouTube that are clearly child-directed?

5) Why does content for YouTube Kids have to originate on the main YouTube site? When content from YouTube is ported to YouTube Kids, why does it also remain on the main site? Do you have plans to change these policies?

6)      Is a user’s age one of the factors which Google enters into algorithms to select content to recommend to the user? Is age under 13, the presence of certain flag terms related to children’s content, or any other designation related to children, a factor which Google enters into algorithms to select content to recommend to the user?

7)      Is a user’s age one of the factors which Google enters into algorithms to select advertising to target to the user? Is age under 13, the presence of certain flag terms related to children’s content, or any other designation related to children, a factor which Google enters into algorithms to select advertising to target to the user?

8)      Describe any and all practices which you employ to encourage children to use YouTube more frequently and/or for longer periods of time. 

Please provide a response no later than October 17, 2018.  We appreciate your prompt attention to this matter.

David N. Cicilline
Member of Congress

Jeff Fortenberry
Member of Congress

cc:
Joseph J. Simons
Chairman
Federal Trade Commission 
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20580