YouTube Fined $170 Million for Child Privacy Violations, Responds with Sweeping Changes

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This week Google settled with the Federal Trade Commission and the New York attorney general, who alleged that popular video service YouTube was violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by tracking the viewing history of children to serve them targeted ads. The fine totaled $170 million, which comes out to roughly 1% of YouTube’s annual revenue.

“YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients,” said Joe Simons, FTC Chairman. “Yet when it came to complying with COPPA, the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids. There’s no excuse for YouTube’s violations of the law.”

As part of the settlement, YouTube must make changes to how it handles minors and videos that are explicitly marketed and designed for minors.

This week, YouTube CEO Susan Wojciciki published an official statement on the major changes that are coming to the platform in response to the federal settlement.

We are changing how we treat data for children’s content on YouTube. Starting in about four months, we will treat data from anyone watching children’s content on YouTube as coming from a child, regardless of the age of the user. This means that we will limit data collection and use on videos made for kids only to what is needed to support the operation of the service. We will also stop serving personalized ads on this content entirely, and some features will no longer be available on this type of content, like comments and notifications. In order to identify content made for kids, creators will be required to tell us when their content falls in this category, and we’ll also use machine learning to find videos that clearly target young audiences, for example those that have an emphasis on kids characters, themes, toys, or games.

Demonetization and clamping down on comments are major changes that will affect many kid-friendly channels, such as Let’s Plays of Minecraft and Roblox, and family vlogs. Wojcicki recognizes the impact in the post: “We know these changes will have a significant business impact on family and kids creators […] so we’ve worked to give impacted creators four months to adjust before changes take effect on YouTube. We recognize this won’t be easy for some creators and are committed to working with them through this transition and providing resources to help them better understand these changes.”

YouTube is pledging $100 million over the next three years toward the creation of “thoughtful, original children’s content,” improve the YouTube Kids app, and move to establishing a dedicated kids section on YouTube.

These changes have a lot of professional YouTubers worried, however, as they scramble to determine how their videos and channels will be affected when these new rules and systems are put into place in January 2020.

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Disney, Nestle, Epic Games Pull YouTube Ads Over Child Exploitation Concerns

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Disney, Nestle, and Epic Games (makers of Fortnite) have temporarily suspended their ads on YouTube, following a recent video report by YouTuber Matt Watson.

In the 20-minute video, which has been viewed nearly 2 million times and sent to news outlets and other organizations, Watson details how easy it is to find a seemingly innocuous video with teens and children, whose comment sections are full of child predators who time stamp specific scenes, make suggestive comments, and even share child pornography with each other. Watson says: “YouTube’s recommended algorithm is facilitating pedophiles’ ability to connect with each other, trade contact info, and link to actual child pornography in the comments.”

Because the videos themselves aren’t explicitly pornographic, YouTube’s algorithm hasn’t flagged them. Yet predators continue to flourish. Worse still, YouTube’s recommended videos algorithm suggests similar child-starring videos, making it easier for these activities and communities to thrive.

Many of these videos are monetized, including pre-roll ads for things like Fortnite. In response, several companies, including Epic Games, have paused their ad funding, hoping to send a clear message to YouTube.

“We have paused all pre-roll advertising,” said a spokesperson from Epic. “Through our advertising agency, we have reached out to Google/YouTube to determine actions they’ll take to eliminate this type of content from their service.”

The Verge reported on Epic Games pulling their advertising, and received a statement from YouTube: “Any content — including comments — that endangers minors is abhorrent and we have clear policies prohibiting this on YouTube. We took immediate action by deleting accounts and channels, reporting illegal activity to authorities and disabling violative comments. There’s more to be done, and we continue to work to improve and catch abuse more quickly.”