An issue has arisen regarding YouTube’s alleged tracking of children online and delivering personalized advertisements. This situation contradicts YouTube’s agreement with the FTC and the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The controversy was highlighted in a report that was made public on Thursday. Google, which had previously faced a lawsuit in June on claims of invading children’s privacy through its Designed For Families program in Android apps, has stated that its YouTube platform adheres to the law and its policies concerning advertising to children. The company countered the report, asserting that it contained misleading information.
A company specializing in ad metrics, Analytics, has asserted that despite YouTube’s consent decree with the FTC on September 4, 2019, which aimed to halt the targeting of children with ads, and CEO Susan Wojcicki’s commitment to cease “serving personalized ads” in videos designed for kids, YouTube continues to present targeted advertisements to underage users.
Analytics suggests that YouTube might place persistent cookies designed for ad targeting and tracking within the web browsers of users engaged with videos labelled “for kids.” Additionally, the report claims that YouTube delivers ads with behavioural and demographic targeting on tapes labelled as ‘for kids.’
Google’s Response to Allegations of Ad Tracking on YouTube’s ‘For Kids’ Channels
According to the report, YouTube’s iOS mobile app allegedly generates and shares a distinct ad tracking ID whenever a user on a ‘for kids’ channel interacts with a YouTube advertisement. Furthermore, the report suggests that when a user clicks on an ad adjacent to a ‘for kids’ video within the app, YouTube opens a specialized in-app ‘webview’ browser for the advertiser’s website. Within this browser, Google reportedly establishes different ad targeting and tracker IDs on the user’s iPhone. Moreover, the YouTube app enables other data brokerage firms and vendors specializing in ad personalization to collect and exchange unique identifiers related to the user.
The study identified 313 brands that advertised consumer products intended for adults (such as cars, razors, etc.) on YouTube videos labelled as “for kids,” even when a user wasn’t signed into an account.
The spokesperson from Google further contended, “Adalytics has now released a second report within a short span of time, and regrettably, it is once again riddled with inaccuracies and misleading information. It’s important to clarify that personalized advertising has never been permissible on YouTube Kids. This rule was not only upheld but extended in January 2020 to cover all viewers of ‘made for kids’ content on YouTube, regardless of their age.”
The representative addressed the report’s claims, emphasizing, “It’s crucial to highlight that the report’s assertions are entirely untrue and its conclusions lack a well-informed basis. The report’s judgments are formed solely based on the mere presence of cookies, which are commonly utilized in these contexts for legitimate purposes such as detecting fraudulent activities and managing ad frequency — both of which are in compliance with COPPA regulations. We should underscore that the excerpts of the report shared with us failed to provide even a single instance where our policies were violated.”
Cookie Usage of YouTube and Potential COPPA Violations
The report starts by clarifying that it doesn’t provide any legal advice. Instead, it highlights certain things on the user’s side – like the information stored in cookies – that are important for advertising. How these things are used is at the core of what Analytics is saying. If YouTube is placing unique markers that can follow kids online, and they’re doing this without asking parents, it might be breaking the COPPA law.
Paul Lekas, who leads global public policy at the Software and Information Industry Association, a group that includes Google, told The Register that having cookies – allowed for specific purposes under COPPA – doesn’t necessarily mean something illegal happened.
“According to COPPA, it’s okay to have cookies on websites for kids,” he explained. “There are some rules to follow, and from what I’ve seen, it’s not clear that [Adalytics has] proven any behavior or evidence that goes beyond those rules.”
Google says that cookies used on content designed for kids are used for legitimate reasons like measuring, preventing fraud, and controlling how often specific ads are shown to someone. However, two US Senators – Edward J. Markey (D-MA) and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) – were concerned enough about the claims to ask FTC Chair Lina Khan to check if Adalytics’ findings are accurate.
The Senators wrote a letter to the FTC Chair, saying, “YouTube and Google shouldn’t treat young people’s information as something they can profit from without any limits. We need laws to protect young people’s privacy online, and we should stop targeted advertising to kids and teenagers.”