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Science & Technology

YouTube Under Fire For Collecting Data On Young Children Without Parental Consent


YouTube is something of a modern-day babysitter, and it is under fire for collecting data on young children without asking their parents first. The company may face a big fine by the Federal Trade Commission as NPR's Aarti Shahani reports.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Here's a poorly kept secret. Little kids watch YouTube a lot.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey, everyone. Today we're unrolling Poopsie toilet rolls.

SHAHANI: So many little kids are on, it's prompted the quirkiest cultural phenomenon - unboxing toys; taking toys out of boxes and bags one after the other.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What do we have here? Unicorn food - such a cute, pearly bag.

SHAHANI: Here is the issue. Under a federal privacy law passed in the 1990s, websites directed at kids under 13 have to get parents' consent before collecting or sharing the kids personal information. YouTube doesn't do that. The company owned by Google has an official line. You have to be 13 or older to have an account, so that kid's privacy law doesn't apply. The Washington Post has reported the FTC is in the late stages of an investigation into YouTube for possible child privacy violations and may impose a fine on the company. This comes at a time when regulators, the Justice Department and Congress are investigating the growing power of big tech. Ashkan Soltani, former FTC chief technologist, says the regulator may be responding to political pressure.

ASHKAN SOLTANI: I know it's not supposed to - right? - in the same way it's not supposed to affect the Supreme Court. But I do know that there's interest in signaling they're reining in big tech.

SHAHANI: Google and YouTube have been accused of leaving children vulnerable to pedophiles. Privacy and watchdog groups have, for years, charged that the companies are illegally gathering data on children and that they're targeting videos at children that would never have passed muster in the TV days. These videos are commercials paid for by toy makers, like many of the unboxing videos. Angela Campbell, a law professor at Georgetown University who's filed numerous complaints to the FTC about Google and its partners, points out they are not the only ones.

ANGELA CAMPBELL: This problem has gone on for a long time, and it's just sort of been, you know, ignored. And I think, you know, it's now just gotten too big to ignore.

SHAHANI: Google, an NPR sponsor, declined to comment on potential FTC action. Campbell says that after years of inaction, she's seeing a kind of bipartisan consensus forming, with Democrats concerned about privacy violations and Republicans about inappropriate content landing in front of kids' eyeballs, though some content is just silly.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And here we actually have unicorn poop (laughter).

SHAHANI: Aarti Shahani, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.