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YouTube's kid problem is more than child's play

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Concern about kids' use of YouTube has long been simmering. It bubbled over yesterday, with reports on a "late stage" FTC inquiry and initiatives within the company to revamp its policies.

Why it matters: YouTube is widely used by kids, and most of their viewing happens on the main site, even though its dedicated YouTube Kids site provides more protections.

Background: Some critics say YouTube is violating the children's privacy protections of a 1998 law known as the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA.

  • Others are concerned about what happens when kids watch content on the main YouTube site and what types of adult content they may be exposed to.

Driving the news:

  • The Wall Street Journal reported that YouTube was considering a range of changes, including the possibility of moving all its child-oriented content out of the main YouTube service and into YouTube Kids.
  • The Washington Post reported that the FTC is "in the late stages of an investigation into YouTube" for violations of COPPA and other laws governing online services for children.
  • This follows complaints from a number of public interest groups alleging YouTube failed to live up to COPPA's requirements.

What they're saying: In statements emailed to Axios...

  • YouTube declined to comment on the FTC inquiry. As for the WSJ report, YouTube said, "We consider lots of ideas for improving YouTube and some remain just that — ideas. Others, we develop and launch, like our restrictions to minors live-streaming or updated hate speech policy."
  • Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who asked the FTC about potential violations last year: "It is no secret that kids flock to YouTube every day, but the company has yet to take the necessary steps to protect its youngest users."
  • EPIC executive director Marc Rotenberg: "EPIC and other consumer advocates have long argued that the data collection practices violate COPPA."
  • However, Rotenberg notes that there have been multiple news reports in recent months about the FTC being in the "late stages" on important investigations that still haven't surfaced.

The big picture: YouTube's children's policies are just one of many areas of controversy for the company. Other concerns include hate speech, harassment, the promotion of conspiracy theories, and whether its recommendation algorithm pushes users toward extreme content.

Meanwhile:

  • Axios' Sara Fischer reported last week that advertisers seeking to reach children have been moving away from YouTube amid privacy concerns.
  • State regulators have also been more active. According to a PwC report, the FTC was generally on its own enforcing protections until 2018. But, the report says, in the last two years "individual state attorney generals (e.g. NY and New Mexico) have initiated separate actions. In parallel, civil class actions have been filed alleging collection of kids' data from apps and games."

Our thought bubble: YouTube is unlikely to move all its kids' content into YouTube Kids — as many children turn their noses up at anything labeled "for kids." But YouTube could limit the kinds of advertising that can be attached to children's programming on the main site or take other similar actions.

The bottom line: Children's issues have a way of winning serious attention and action from politicians and regulators more speedily than those affecting adults.

Go deeper: Why YouTube needs principles