It appears that Google’s new app, YouTube Kids, is attracting more than just the attention of “curious little minds.” Recently, a group of privacy and children’s rights advocates (including the Center for Digital Democracy and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry) asked the FTC “to investigate whether Google’s YouTube Kids app violates Section 5 of the FTC Act.” The request came after the advocacy group reviewed and assessed the YouTube Kids app as it functioned; watching content Google says caters to children while protecting them from questionable or troubling content.
The advocacy groups’ letter to the FTC claims their review identified three features of the app it believes are unfair or deceptive: 1) Google offered “intermixed” content whereby advertising content was mixed actual content; 2) that much of the advertising violates the FTC’s Endorsement Guidelines because it its user-generated in a way capable of masking relationships with product manufacturers; and 3) the current advertising content violates the stated policies and procedures of the YouTube Kids app. At bottom, the central issue raised by the advocacy groups is that very young children (generally under 5 years of age) cannot distinguish between actual content and advertising and that makes them “uniquely vulnerable to commercial influence.” The advocacy groups also asked the FTC to investigate whether or not children are being tracked without verifiable parental consent, even though the groups don’t take direct issue with YouTube Kids’ data collection practices. The FTC has said that it “has received the letter and will review the concerns raised by these groups.”
However, Google disagrees with the views of the complaining advocacy groups. YouTube, introduced YouTube Kids in February 2015 to make it “safer and easier for children to find videos on topics they want to explore,” according to a YouTube blog post. However, the app also features channels from brands including McDonald’s, Barbie and Lego that air videos the consumer groups say are thinly disguised advertisements. YouTube has said that they worked with child advocacy groups on the free app but was not contacted by the consumer groups and that it strongly disagrees “with their contentions, including the suggestion that no free, ad-supported experience for kids will ever be acceptable. We disagree and think that great content shouldn’t be reserved for only those families who can afford it.”
Under President Obama’s administration, the FTC has increased its enforcement efforts surrounding Internet companies. For example, in September 2014, Google agreed to pay approximately $19 million to settle charges with the FTC that the company had unfairly billed parents for children’s unauthorized purchase on mobile apps. However, the case against YouTube Kids may not be as easy as the advocacy groups think. The challenge to YouTube Kids is likely to present significant First Amendment hurdles, and will also face the general reluctance of courts to censor any kind of Internet speech. Even still, given the FTC’s renewed interest in protecting children online, it is likely that the FTC will have at least a few questions for Google following the advocacy groups’ letter.