US: Google penalised $170 million after YouTube broke children’s privacy law

Google was fined a record $170 million (Rs 1,221 crore on Wednesday for illegally collecting personal information of children on YouTube and targeting them with advertisements, The New York Times reported. This was in violation of Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The tech giant also agreed to enact changes to its privacy policies to protect children on the video site.

Google agreed to the penalty and the changes after reaching an agreement with the US Federal Trade Commission and the New York attorney general.

According to regulators, YouTube illegally collected the data of children under 13 years, including identification codes used to track web browsing, without their parents’ consent. The site told a few advertising firms that they would not have to comply with the children’s privacy law because it did not have viewers under 13. However, younger children regularly videos on the site and many popular YouTube channels feature cartoons made for them.

“YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients,” The Guardian quoted Federal Trade Commission Chairperson Joe Simons as saying. “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.”

In a blog post, YouTube chief Susan Wojcicki said nothing was more important to the company than protecting children and their privacy.

“We are changing how we treat data for children’s content on YouTube,” she added. “Starting in about four months, we will treat data from anyoneing children’s content on YouTube as coming from a child, regardless of the age of the user. 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 personalised 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 in the coming months the company said it would “share details on how we’re rethinking our overall approach to kids and families, including a dedicated kids experience on YouTube”.

However, the critics of the settlement said the penalty was a slap on the wrist for one of the world’s richest companies. “The FTC let Google off the hook with a drop-in-the-bucket fine and a set of new requirements that fall well short of what is needed to turn YouTube into a safe and healthy place for kids,” said Senator Edward J Markey of Massachusetts.

Children’s rights advocates said Google had simply agreed to abide by a law it should have been complying with already. “Merely requiring Google to follow the law, that’s a meaningless sanction,” Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy told The New York Times. The organisations’ efforts in the 1990s had led to the enactment of the law. “It is the equivalent of a cop pulling somebody over for speeding at 110 miles an hour, and they get off with a warning,” Chester added.

The decision to settle the case split the federal body along partisan lines with three of its Republican commissioners approving it and two Democratic commissioners voting against it.

In a statement, two of the Republican commissioners – FTC Chairperson Joseph J Simons, and Christine S. Widillions – said the settlement “achieves a significant victory for the millions of parents whose children child-directed content on YouTube”. They claimed that for the first time a platform would have to ask its content producers to identify themselves as creators of content meant for children.

Rohit Chopra, a Democratic commissioner, said the settlement agreement did not hold YouTube executives personally accountable for illegal harvesting of children’s data. According to Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, the other Democratic commissioner, the agreement did not go far enough.

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