As part of those changes, YouTube said it will seek to better distinguish which content is intended primarily for children, relying on a combination of self-identification from creators and software. That content cannot run with personalized advertisements, under the new rules that YouTube said it is instituting globally starting Monday.
YouTube said it will assume any viewer of child-friendly content is underage, treating that data as subject to COPPA rules. It has been limiting other features too, such as comments on children’s videos and live chats.
But some privacy experts said the changes may not offer children enough protections from a company that has accrued reams of data on its users and is incentivized to compel viewers to stay on the site for as long as possible.
“There’s still a gray area for content that may not obviously be for children, but is mostly viewed by children,” said Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group that was among those that filed complaints to the Federal Trade Commission about YouTube. “The burden is largely on creators to police the site and not enough on YouTube.”
Tech giants including Amazon, Facebook and Google are facing heightened pressure to better protect users’ personal data in response to a slew of privacy scandals that have rocked the industry in recent months. Regulators around the world have responded by opening investigations, issuing steep fines and threatening the tech sector with new laws, including new privacy rules in California that took effect at the beginning of this year.
(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
In Washington, the FTC began considering ways to update and potentially expand the children’s privacy rules last summer, questioning whether advances in technology had outpaced decades-old digital protections. Agency officials are particularly concerned with websites, video games and other services that are not explicitly marketed to children but attract large numbers of young people anyway.
But many privacy advocates and consumer groups contend the issue isn’t the law — it’s the FTC. “The main problem is that the FTC has not adequately enforced it,” 19 organizations wrote in comments filed to the agency in December. They pointed to the FTC’s lengthy investigation of YouTube, culminating with a relatively small fine, as a sign that the agency has been outmatched by industry.
“The FTC has long been aware that many channels on YouTube are directed to children,” they wrote.
The complaints followed a $170 million settlement with YouTube in September with state and federal regulators who alleged that the site collected data across the Web on users it knew were underage and showed them personalized ads, in violation of COPPA. The company took in some $50 million from a shortlist of channels that were in violation of the law, according to the complaint, suggesting it netted far more than that.
YouTube did not admit any fault as a result of the settlement.
“Responsibility is our number one priority at YouTube, and this includes protecting kids and their privacy,” the company said in the blog post Monday announcing the changes.
Advertising known as contextual, which is not personalized but assumes certain attributes of most viewers, will still be permitted to run alongside children’s content. YouTube’s parent company, Alphabet, doesn’t disclose detailed financial information on the unit and it was unclear what the financial impact of the changes might be for the company.
Some YouTube content creators, however, said the changes were likely to crater their advertising business, because personalized ads tend to sell for more than contextual ads. Eyal Baumel, CEO of management company Yoola, said he is encouraging clients with more child-friendly videos to find new sources of revenue to cope with any dip in sales. “The concern is that a majority of revenue will disappear,” he said. “Creators need to start thinking about selling books, selling merchandise.”
“A lot of creators are telling me they may quit if it’s as bad as they fear,” said Baumel. “There’s just a lot of confusion about how this will play out, particularly among the smallest channels.”
YouTube said it is “committed supporting creators and continuing to engage on this issue.”
Parry Gripp, who posts short animated songs on YouTube, said he worries that the changes could result in less children’s content, leading potentially to children finding more content on their own that is intended for older audiences. “If you discourage kids’ creators, there will just be non-kids content,” he said.