Google and the Federal Trade Commission have finalized the terms of a settlement meant to punish YouTube for collecting personal data on users younger than 13—a practice forbidden by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, better known as COPPA.
Under the settlement’s terms, Google and YouTube will pay the FTC $136 million. The company will also pay the state of New York $34 million to settle parallel allegations brought by the New York Attorney General.
The settlement was reportedly reached earlier this summer, though the terms were not made public. For years, YouTube has gathered personal information about as many as 25 million children for the purposes of targeted advertising.
“YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients,” FTC Chairman Joe Simons said in a statement. “Yet when it came to complying with COPPA, the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids.”
Prior to the settlement’s terms being made public, YouTube quietly announced major changes to the way it handles content for kids, rolling out a separate website for kid-friendly videos at www.youtubekids.com. The new video hub requires a parent to "unlock" the site by solving a simple math problem.
The web version of the YouTube Kids experience is new—prior to the change the kids-only hub was only available through a mobile app. YouTube announced the web portal in its help forums rather than in a blog post, suggesting the company is attempting to downplay the changes.
The new YouTube Kids offers three different experiences tailored to preschool, younger, and older kids. Previously, YouTube lumped kids age age eight and younger together, but now two separate categories sort kids who are four and under from kids who are ages five through seven. The selections are still algorithmically-driven, and YouTube acknowledges that some inappropriate content could still make it through existing content filters.
“Our systems work hard to exclude content not suitable for each of these age categories, but not all videos have been manually reviewed,” YouTube said in its YouTube Kids announcement. “If you find something inappropriate that we missed, you can block it or flag it for fast review.”
For its part, YouTube is likely happy to pay the fine and move on. For a company with a market capitalization of more than $800 billion, even $200 million is a negligible price to pay for misdeeds.
“Google’s violations of COPPA are brazen, widespread, and specifically designed to increase profits,” said Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), who authored COPPA in the House. Markey called the fine “a drop in the bucket.”
“YouTube knowingly broke the law by tracking kids in order to rake in advertising dollars without the requisite notice to and permission from parents,” Markey said. “This settlement makes clear that this FTC stands for ‘Forgetting Teens and Children’.”