That scheme has a name: the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), passed in 1998. Twenty years later, its central concerns have held up well. Sites meant for kids under 13, or that have “actual knowledge” that those kids use a given site, have to get explicit parental consent to collect identifying information about them (and thus also to use that information for targeted advertising). “Children, in the United States, are the only group of internet users who have opt-in rights” for how companies use their data, Jeff Chester, an early advocate of the law and the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer-advocacy group, told me. “That's the basic framework of COPPA.” (What Markey was proposing would bump COPPA-style parental consent up to age 16.)
But on Monday, Chester’s organization and 22 other consumer-advocacy groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that Google’s platform YouTube has violated that framework because it has “actual knowledge” that kids under 13 use the site and nonetheless harvests kids’ phone numbers, geolocation data, and other unique identifiers as it would any older user. “We are reviewing the complaint and will evaluate if there are things we can do to improve,” a Google spokesperson told me via email, repeating a statement issued to the press earlier this week. “Protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us.”
Sites like YouTube and Facebook sidestep COPPA by having users certify, when making an account or logging on, that they are 13 or older. But that doesn’t always align with reality, Ariel Fox Johnson, the senior counsel for policy and privacy at Common Sense Media, an advocacy group that joined the complaint, told me: Lots of kids get past that safeguard. (It would make sense that tech companies are less than scrupulous about this, given how dependent their business models are on growing user bases and collecting that data for advertising.)
YouTube has countless channels “that are very clearly targeting kids,” Fox Johnson said. “For them to say ‘We're not targeted toward kids on those channels’ is a little bit hard to take.” Indeed, YouTube is very popular with kids, two-thirds of whom in the 6-to-12 age range already have a personal device. Roughly three-quarters of kids in that age group use YouTube daily, according to a separate market-research study cited in the complaint. And usage among kids is climbing, fast: Sixty-five percent of kids who use it hop on several times a day, up from 45 percent in 2015.
For these reasons and many more, tech companies have cordoned off separate spaces for children: Facebook announced Messenger Kids in December, for example, because parents “see value in these technologies,” Antigone Davis, the global head of safety at Facebook, told me, and “they want more control.” And “because YouTube is not for children,” the Google spokesperson said, the company built YouTube Kids three years ago “to offer an alternative specifically designed” for them.