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YouTube, COPPA, and twelve-year-old lawyers

YouTube, COPPA, and twelve-year-old lawyers

by Karl D. Stephan | September 27, 2018

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YouTube, as anybody who is reading this online probably knows, is a video-streaming service owned by Google.  Because Google makes money from ads that go along with its services, it is in Google’s interest to make such services as easily accessible as possible to the most people.  
 
Accessing YouTube requires only the ability to spell, or maybe even just to point on a smartphone screen to an icon.  Such skills are easily mastered by children as young as eight. 
 
In April of 2017, USA Today carried a story about an eight-year-old boy in Ohio who not only figured out how to watch YouTube, but learned how to drive a car by watching instructional videos.  
 
He and his four-year-old sister waited until their parents were asleep one day.  Then they went out to the family car and drove to McDonald’s, where he used his piggy-bank money to buy a cheeseburger.  People who saw him on his way to the restaurant and called the cops when they figured out what was happening nevertheless said he obeyed all the traffic laws and didn’t hit a thing. 
 
COPPA stands for the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, a federal law that prohibits collecting online data from children under 13 without the consent of parents.  Last April, a coalition of childrens’ privacy protection groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that YouTube does indeed collect data from kids under 13—location, usage habits, and more.  
 
And just last week, a pair of U. S. representatives, one Democrat and one Republican, wrote a letter to Google chair Sundar Pichai to ask him how his company uses data collected on those under 13.
 
The only substantive response from the company so far on these matters has been the following:  
 
“Protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us. Because YouTube is not for children, we've invested significantly in the creation of the YouTube Kids app to offer an alternative specifically designed for children. We appreciate all efforts to protect families and children online and look forward to working with members of Congress to answer their questions."
 
Of course, kids get into all sorts of things that aren’t intended for them, YouTube included.  The only barrier that keeps kids under 13 away from YouTube is item 12 in the YouTube Terms and Conditions, which reads in part,
 
“In any case, you affirm that you are over the age of 13, as the Service is not intended for children under 13. If you are under 13 years of age, then please do not use the Service. There are lots of other great web sites for you. Talk to your parents about what sites are appropriate for you.”
 
A recent Roz Chast cartoon in The New Yorker portrayed an updated carnival freak-show sign, and one of the featured creatures was “The Man Who Actually Read the Terms and Conditions.”  If I had a twelve-year-old child who came to me and told me that she had dutifully read the YouTube terms and conditions, and said to me, “Paragraph 12 told me to talk to you about what sites are appropriate for me,” I’d tell her to go check out the Harvard Law School application page.  And then I’d probably never forgive myself for having raised a lawyer. 
 
Everyone, including the lawyers who wrote those terms and conditions, knows that the chances of a child actually reading Paragraph 12 and acting on it are indistinguishable from zero.  
 
But technically and legally, YouTube has told precocious under-13 lawyers, and anyone else in that age category, that they shouldn’t be watching YouTube.  Presumably, the company’s default position on this issue is, “Well, we warned kids to stay away and not to lie to us about their age.  What else can we do?”
 
And that is the question.  Displaying content that is inappropriate for young children is bad enough, but collecting data on them is illegal—technically, according to COPPA.  
 
But here again, we run into a legal fiction.  While there are all sorts of good laws on the books to prevent this sort of thing, laws are pointless unless they are enforced.  And as far as I know, the filing of the childrens’ privacy group complaint to the FTC has vanished into the federal bureaucracy, and Sundar Pichai has not yet replied to the letter from David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska). 
 
This whole situation begins to remind me disquietingly of a joke that was told about the way work got done in the old Soviet Union.  When a Western tourist asked a worker privately about conditions in a town in Siberia where the pay was low and the store shelves were almost empty, he replied, “Well, we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” 
 
YouTube pretends to keep children under 13 from watching it, and when that doesn’t work, the federal government and its representatives pretend to try to do something about it.  I normally don’t like sounding cynical, but sometimes the level of hypocrisy gets so high that you simply can’t ignore it.
 
I am not accusing either privacy groups or members of Congress of hypocrisy in this case.  Filing complaints and writing letters are sincere efforts to do something about the situation.  But so far, they appear to be just as ineffectual as YouTube’s Paragraph 12 in keeping kids from being exploited or having their innocence (remember innocence?) stripped from them. 
 
Every age has its public priorities—institutions and ways of doing things that are so accepted and even praised that they cannot be seriously challenged.  Slavery was one such priority until less than two hundred years ago, but that finally changed for the better.  
 
Perhaps kids watching YouTube videos and having their data used by Google is not the worst thing that can happen to them.  But it’s one tip of the iceberg of this culture’s neglect and exploitation of children that will have long-term effects that we may not even understand for decades, let alone be able to do anything about. 
 
The first step toward righting a wrong is to recognize it as wrong.  A few people are questioning whether a giant corporation should get away with pretending it’s not doing something that it’s doing, at the expense of children.  And that is a good first step, but only the first step on a long journey.
 
Sources:  
I referred to an article at https://www.multichannel.com/news/reps-press-google-on-kids-data-collection-issues entitled “Reps. Press Google on Kids Data Collection Issues” published on Sept. 17, 2018.  
The quotation from a YouTube representative is from https://www.cnet.com/news/lawmakers-pressure-google-to-share-how-youtube-collects-uses-kids-data/ published on Sept. 18, 2018.  
The story of the 8-year-old who taught himself to drive on YouTube is at
And in case you’re having trouble falling asleep, YouTube’s terms and conditions can be read in full at https://www.youtube.com/static?template=terms
 
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

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