A little more than a week after 20-plus privacy, consumer, and child advocacy groups sounded the alarm to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about YouTube’s alleged collection of data for children under 13 years old without parental consent, the video-streaming website and parent companies Google, LLC and Alphabet, Inc. have been named in a proposed class action lawsuit over suspected violations of the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
According to the 20-page complaint, COPPA dictates that developers of child-focused apps, as well as third parties working with such developers, cannot lawfully obtain the personal information of a child under 13 years old without first obtaining verifiable consent from a parent. Personal information covered by COPPA includes names, email addresses and Social Security numbers, as well as “persistent identifier[s] that can be used to recognize a user over time” across different websites or services.
The plaintiff, a South Carolina woman who filed the case on behalf of her minor child, charges that YouTube makes no effort to keep parents in the loop on its data collection practices, and that the defendants collectively do not seek parental consent for the data collection of children under age 13.
“Large portions of YouTube [are directed to] children and Google has actual knowledge that YouTube is collecting personal information from children,” the case states.
The Ad Business and “The New Children’s TV”
With children serving as a “lucrative audience” for advertisers on which YouTube relies, the lawsuit claims YouTube’s allegedly improper data collection can be traced in part to its ad business.
The complaint says the online advertising market for kids is expected to hit $1.2 billion by 2019, with YouTube reportedly accounting for more than 30 percent of the total time children spend online. Coupled with this, the lawsuit adds, is the new norm of children no longer consuming media with their parents, but instead alone, on mobile devices, with access to innumerable video content choices through which advertisers can share their messages. Given how much of YouTube’s content is geared toward children, how much time children spend consuming that content, and how heavily the company relies on ad revenue to stay afloat, it’s easy to recognize how much money there is to be made through child-directed advertisements.
It’s here that the lawsuit expands on how the hyper-targeting capabilities of the online advertising industry—not to mention the general might of Google—are supposedly put to use to target YouTube’s 13-and-under demographic:
YouTube is integrated with Google’s complex of advertising technologies and services, including AdWords, DoubleClick, and Google Preferred.
AdWords is the Web’s most popular advertising service. It serves more than four million advertisers, and enables ads to target children on YouTube. AdWords offers a variety of targeting methods, including via YouTube, so that advertisers can reach their ideal audience based on who they are, what they’re interested in, or what content they’re viewing.
Through AdWords, advertisers can target children by using keywords such as ‘kid,’ ‘child,’ ‘toddler,’ ‘baby’ or ‘toy.’ AdWords will even suggest keywords such as ‘barbie doll dream house.’”
The defendants’ ad-targeting capabilities became more robust in 2014 when Google launched Google Preferred, according to the lawsuit, essentially providing advertisers with access to a premium service to “pair up their ads with top-performing videos” within certain genres—such as YouTube’s many children-directed video channels—akin to buying ads for prime-time television.
With all this in mind, one can make an educated guess as to how advertisers come to find out how best to target the ads for the children’s online demographic, including “who they are, what they’re interested in, or what content they’re viewing.”
Google, Alphabet and YouTube’s alleged privacy offenses are described in the complaint as “an egregious breach of social norms,” as the companies may have disclosed sensitive and confidential information about children to “countless third-parties, known and unknown.”
Who’s Covered by this Lawsuit?
The lawsuit seeks to cover a nationwide class of individuals younger than 13 years old—or who were younger than 13 when they viewed content on the defendants’ apps or websites—whose personal information was collected by the defendants without parental consent. The case also looks to cover a California-only subclass within the same parameters.