Google recently released a YouTube for Kids App attempting to create a safe video viewing site for children. The App is receiving criticism on a number of fronts, criticism that may prove counter-productive.
The Children’s Online Privacy Protect Act [“COPPA”] is a federal law addressing the collection of personal information of children under 13 years of age by online entities. At the core of the law is the belief parents should have control over whether such information is collected.
COPPA only applies to websites and apps “directed at children” under 13 or where the operators of the site have “actual knowledge” of the presence of such young kids. To avoid costly COPPA compliance requirements, sites are incentivized to look the other way whenever possible. This leads to situations where a site such as YouTube claims no actual knowledge of the presence of kids under 13, yet hosts Dora the Explorer videos with millions of views. YouTube is hardly the only site taking such a position with Facebook and other large sites following a similar strategy.
To its credit, YouTube’s new App is the first real solution to the problem offered by a major player online. The app works in an ingeniously simple manner. After working with COPPA groups, Google designed the app to avoid the key concerns expressed by these groups. Specifically, the app does not collect any information from users. Also, the ads shown on videos are not “clickable”. This prevents children from clicking through to the advertiser site and having their information collected without parental consent as required under COPPA. Ultimately, Google’s approach to the smartphone app checks the box on all the concerns of parents from a COPPA perspective. Pity then that other groups are attacking the company.
Despite the lack of information collection, groups have come forward to criticize the new app. Critics do not argue COPPA is being violated or even skirted, but that the new app consists of “one big ad” despite showing a variety of shows from kid-friend providers such as National Geographic. The presence of ads, according to critics, violates FCC rulings regarding the content that can be shown to young children on television. The FCC was not thought to have jurisdiction over the web, but its recent net neutrality regulations may challenge this understanding.
The criticism of the new YouTube for Kids App appears counter-productive for two reasons. First, the product is an app that is voluntarily downloaded, which suggests offended parties can simply not use the app. Second, the app represents a voluntary step by Google. If Google is punished for taking this step, it may abandon the project. Young children will then return to YouTube where they can watch videos intended for an older audience while having their personal information collected without oversight.
There is a secondary problem with the attacks on the new YouTube app. Companies such as Facebook that might be compelled to follow the lead of Google in developing children-friendly apps are disabused of the notion. Why voluntarily invite expensive legal challenges and potential bad publicity? Groups challenging the new Google app may want to take this into account prior to moving forward with challenges.