As we predicted in our post late last month, Google’s YouTube Kids app has attracted more than just the “curious little minds” Google was hoping for. Yesterday, 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 Federal Trade Commission “to investigate whether Google’s YouTube Kids app violates Section 5 of the FTC Act . . . .”
The advocacy group downloaded the YouTube Kids app onto an Android device, and two iOS devices. It then reviewed and assessed the app as it functioned; watching content Google says caters to children while protecting them from questionable or troubling content.
The advocacy group claims this review identified three features of the app it believes are unfair or deceptive. First, the group faults Google for offering content “intermixed” with advertising content in a manner the group claims “would not be permitted to be shown on broadcast or cable television” under Federal Communications Commission guidelines. Second, the group worries that much of advertising violates FTC Endorsement Guidelines because it is user-generated in a way capable of masking relationships with product manufacturers. Finally, the group claims the advertising content violates the YouTube Kids app’s stated policies and procedures.
Taken together, the advocacy group issues all collapse around the same core argument: 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.” This argument has a lot of emotional appeal: who wouldn’t want to protect small children? But the implications of this argument extend far beyond the YouTube Kids app, and would call into question any free, advertising supported video platform, including network television. As such, it seems like the advocacy groups position face significant First Amendment hurdles.
Although the advocacy group does not (yet) take issues with YouTube Kids’ data collection practices, it does question how the app is able to generate video recommendations. And its letter to the FTC explicitly asks the Commission to investigate whether or not children are being tracked without verifiable parental consent.
The ball is now squarely in the FTC’s court. It could launch a non-public investigation regarding the app’s practices, or it could do nothing. However, as the Commission has recently signaled a renewed interest in protecting children online (including entering a $19 million dollar settlement with Google over children’s in-app purchases last September), it seems likely the Commission will have at least some questions for Google following the advocacy group’s letter.