YouTube's Under-13 Policy In Question

John Lister's picture

Consumer groups say YouTube is breaking the law by collecting data about pre-teens without parental permission. They've asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate.

The alleged breach is of the Childrens Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a federal law that significantly restricts the way sites can handle data about users aged under 13. That's why many major websites that have user accounts officially ban pre-teens from signing up with their services.

That's not quite the case with YouTube. Users do have to be 13 or older to get a Google account, which is necessary for some YouTube functions such as uploading videos, commenting, subscribing to 'channels' or keeping a record of previously viewer videos. However, it's still possible to watch videos and search the site without an account even though the terms of service say that under-13s shouldn't use it.

The 23 organizations who've made the FTC complaint say that although pre-teens might not have accounts, they still collect personal information about children such as their location and device, without getting parental permission.

Complaint Cites Kid's Channels

The COPPA rules say sites don't necessarily have to check the age of every user if there's no registration or membership in place. However, if a site is aimed at a young audience, the operators are supposed to work on the assumption that many users are under 18 and thus avoid the data collection.

According to the complainants, while YouTube itself is aimed at adults, it has many hugely popular channels that are very clearly focused on young children, with many of the channels carrying advertising that is aimed at this audience. (Source:

Google doesn't let advertisers specifically target under-18s (let alone pre-teens), though they can use kid-related keywords to determine which videos their ads appear alongside the content.

Fines Could Approach $1 Trillion

In theory the FTC could order Google to display an "age gate" before videos that requires users to actively confirm they are aged 13 or older, though this wouldn't necessarily require any proof.

The complainants say that given the amount of money that Google has made from ads on the relevant channels, the FTC should consider imposing fines. They estimate 23 million kids were affected by the COPPA breaches which, given the maximum penalties allowable under the rules, could theoretically mean a fine of almost one trillion dollars. (Source:

Google hasn't commented on the specifics of this complaint but insists that the regular YouTube site is not for children and that they should use the separate YouTube Kids app that meets the relevant rules.

What's Your Opinion?

Do age restrictions have any purpose if they can't be enforced? Should Google host channels specifically aimed at young children on the regular YouTube site? Do you expect the FTC to impose any punishment?

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