Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on Tuesday called on the Federal Trade Commission to hold YouTube accountable for any potential violations of federal law meant to protect the privacy of children, while urging the government to enact sweeping changes to prevent the social media giant from mishandling the lucrative data of its underage users.
Markey’s comments came less than a week after The Washington Post reported that YouTube has been under investigation by the federal government for allegedly violating privacy laws, notably the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. The Post reported last week that the FTC was in the “late stages” of a probe and could soon level a massive penalty against the company, which is owned by Google.
“One of the Federal Trade Commission’s most critical responsibilities is protecting children’s privacy,” Markey wrote to the FTC’s five commissioners. “Given the extensive evidence that YouTube is invading child users’ privacy, I urge you to take all necessary steps to hold YouTube accountable for any illegal activity affecting children that the company may have committed and, if violations are found, to require the company to institute new safeguards that will stop these harms from continuing.”
If any penalties are announced, it would be the latest effort by the government to rein in massive tech companies, which have posted record profits and rapidly expanding user bases. Facebook could soon be fined up to a record $5 billion by the FTC over its own allegations of widespread privacy violations.
Markey recommended a spate of changes that could be implemented by YouTube in the coming months, including requiring Google to stop collecting data from underage users and deleting all it has already acquired. The senator also called for an annual independent audit of the company to ensure it was abiding by federal guidelines.
Critics say YouTube has failed to address societal changes over the past 20 years since COPPA was passed. The law prohibits the tracking or targeting of any user under the age of 13, but that demographic remains a major user of social media services. The Pew Research Center found last year that 81% of parents with kids 11 or younger had let their children watch YouTube.
In a statement to the Post last week, a YouTube spokeswoman said the company was considering “lots of ideas for improving YouTube and some remain just that — ideas.”
“Others, we develop and launch, like our restrictions to minors live-streaming or updated hate speech policy,” Andrea Faville, the spokeswoman, said at the time. She declined to directly comment on the FTC investigation.
Markey concluded his letter with a warning to the FTC, urging the regulatory body to act as a “check against the ever increasing appetite for children’s data.”
“Companies of all types have strong business incentives to gather and monetize information about children,” Markey noted in his letter. “Personal information about a child can be leveraged to hook consumers for years to come.”