YouTube and its parent company Google have agreed to pay $170m to US regulators after being accused of violating children’s privacy.

The Federal Trade Commission announced on Wednesday the companies will pay the amount to settle claims the video-sharing website illegally collected personal information from children without their parents’ consent.

YouTube was accused of using cookies, which track users across the internet, on channels directed at children without first getting parents’ consent. Regulators said the platform earned millions of dollars by allowing companies to target advertisements at those children.

Joe Simons, the FTC chair, said in a statement: “YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients. Yet when it came to complying with COPPA [the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act], the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids. There’s no excuse for YouTube’s violations of the law.”

Susan Wojcicki, the chief executive of YouTube, said in a blog post: “We know how important it is to provide children, families and family creators the best experience possible on YouTube and we are committed to getting it right.”

The fine — the largest ever obtained by the FTC in a COPPA case — follows the record $5bn agreement the FTC recently reached with Facebook after the social media company was accused of violating its users’ privacy.

In both cases, the FTC’s two Democratic commissioners voted against the settlements, warning that they do not go far enough.

As part of Wednesday’s settlement, YouTube must force video creators to identify when their videos are targeted at children. If they are, the company will automatically disable cookies.

Ms Wojcicki said the company would also use artificial intelligence to help it identify when content is aimed at children, even if the creator has not classified it as such.

But Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, one of the Democratic commissioners who voted against the settlement, warned that many smaller video creators could simply lie about whether their content was aimed at children.

She said in a statement: “The order does not require YouTube to police the channels that deceive by mis-designating their content, such as by requiring YouTube to put in place a technological backstop to identify undesignated child-directed content and turn off behavioural advertising.”

Rohit Chopra, the other Democratic commissioner, said the agreement did not do enough to hold company executives personally accountable for privacy breaches.

Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, told reporters on Wednesday he was “a little saddened” by the partisan divide.

The FTC’s changes must be implemented by early next year, after which the commission said it would conduct a “sweep” of the website to make sure the company was policing it properly.

YouTube also came under fire earlier this year when several major advertisers — including Nestlé and Disney — slashed digital advertising following suggestions that the site had facilitated paedophile networks.

Get alerts on Google LLC when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article