Google agreed Wednesday to pay $170 million to settle charges that it illegally tracked and targeted children on its YouTube video service, a deal critics said was too soft on the internet giant.
The settlement with the Federal Trade Commission and the New York state attorney general is the largest amount in a case involving the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a 1998 federal law, officials said.
YouTube violated the law that requires child-directed websites and online services to obtain parental consent prior to collecting personal information from children under 13 that may be used for advertising, according to officials.
The agreement settles Google’s liability over videos directed at kids even if produced by others for the video-sharing platform. Critics of the internet giant said YouTube marketed itself as a destination for children and benefitted by selling advertising to toymakers and others.
FTC chairman Joe Simons said the settlement “prevents YouTube and Google from turning a blind eye to the existence of kids-directed content” on its platform.
Simons said the settlement makes Google liable for violations by third-party content creators, going beyond federal law that requires the platform to have knowledge that videos are directed at children.
“No other company in America is subject to these requirements,” he said.
Change to business practices
Letitia James, the New York attorney general, said the deal calls for “major reforms” to YouTube’s business practices in addition to the fines.
“Google and YouTube knowingly and illegally monitored, tracked, and served targeted ads to young children just to keep advertising dollars rolling in,” said James.
YouTube outlined how it would change the way it handles children’s content under the agreement.
“We will treat data from anyone watching children’s content on YouTube as coming from a child, regardless of the age of the user,” YouTube chief Susan Wojcicki said in a statement.
“This means that we will limit data collection and use on videos made for kids only to what is needed to support the operation of the service. We will also stop serving personalized ads on this content entirely, and some features will no longer be available on this type of content, like comments and notifications.”
Wojcicki added that Google would create a $100 million fund “dedicated to the creation of thoughtful, original children’s content on YouTube and YouTube Kids globally.”
The settlement, which must be approved by a federal court, calls for the FTC to receive $136 million and New York state the remaining $34 million.
The deal was approved by a 3-2 vote of the FTC commissioners, with the two Democrats calling for tougher penalties.
The deal “repeats many of the same mistakes from the flawed Facebook settlement: no individual accountability, insufficient remedies to address the company’s financial incentives, and a fine that still allows the company to profit from its lawbreaking,” Democratic commissioner Rohit Chopra said in a dissent.
“The terms of the settlement were not even significant enough to make Google issue a warning to its investors.”
Activists who filed a complaint last year against YouTube also said the deal falls short.
“We are gratified that the FTC has finally forced Google to confront its longstanding lie that it wasn’t targeting children on YouTube,” said Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, one of the groups in the complaint.
The “paltry financial penalty of $170 million” is a mere slap and “sends a signal that if you are a politically powerful corporation, you do not have to fear any serious financial consequences when you break the law,” Chester said.
Lawmakers from both parties also criticized the agreement.
“Big Tech’s invasion of children’s lives is appalling. When companies like Google & YouTube repeatedly break the law & track kids online, the FTC must demand structural change & executive accountability — not just fines,” said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal on Twitter.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley said the modest penalty “is an insult to every parent in America who has had their children’s privacy violated. When big bureaucracy & Big Tech becomes allies, parents & families lose.”
Simons said that it would be difficult to get a harsher penalty imposed in court, which would require proving that Google knew about its violations from third parties.
The regulatory chief added that the settlement “sends a strong signal about the importance of children’s privacy.”