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YouTube’s new kids’ content system has creators scrambling

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The government could sue them for thousands of dollars

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

On Tuesday afternoon, YouTube formally announced its plan to have creators label any videos of theirs that may appeal to children. Starting in January 2020, if creators mark a video as directed at kids, data collection will be blocked for all viewers, resulting in lower ad revenue, and those videos will lose some of the platform’s most popular features, including comments and end screens. It’s a major change in how YouTube works, and has left some creators clueless as to whether they’re subject to the new rules.

Reached by The Verge, Google confirmed that this new system was the result of a landmark $170 million settlement YouTube reached with the Federal Trade Commission in September for allegedly violating children’s privacy. It’s the largest fine ever collected under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which forbids collecting data from children under the age of 13 without explicit consent from their parents. In this case, the ruling means YouTube can’t employ its powerful ad-targeting system on anyone who might be under the age of 13 — a dire problem for a platform with so many young users.

The new system is already sending creators reeling over what exactly is considered kids’ content and what could happen if they unintentionally mislabel videos. Some of YouTube’s most popular categories falls into a gray area for the policy, including gaming videos, family vlogging, and toy reviews.

“Creators are being held directly responsible by the FTC,“ Dan Eardley, who reviews collectible toys on his channel Pixel Dan, told The Verge on Wednesday. “So if the FTC decides that [we] are indeed targeting children, we’ll be fined. That is frightening.”

“It’s especially scary because the verbiage of ‘kid directed’ vs ‘kid attractive’ isn’t very clear,” he continued. “It’s hard to know if we’re in violation or not.”

Children’s advocacy groups like Common Sense feel that the rules don’t go far enough, and that placing most of the burden on creators rather than YouTube itself won’t do enough to protect kids online. However, the rules are “entirely consistent with what YouTube is required to do under this settlement order,” Ariel Johnson, Common Sense’s senior counsel of policy and privacy told The Verge. “I felt that the settlement order fell short for kids and families and all the protections that they need.”

In theory, YouTube has always been subject to COPPA, but those restrictions have taken on new urgency in the wake of the recent settlement with the FTC. Under the terms of the settlement, YouTube is required to “develop, implement, and maintain a system for Channel Owners to designate whether their Content on the YouTube Service is directed to Children.” Under the system that YouTube rolled out on Tuesday, creators who strictly make children’s content can also have their entire channel designated as directed at children. Once a video is labeled as kids’ content, all personalized ads will be shut off, replaced with “contextualized” advertising based on the video itself.

Within YouTube, it’s clear that child-directed videos will have fewer advantages on the platform. The most obvious is the removal of targeted ads, but a number of other YouTube features are also impossible without personalized data. In particular, child-directed videos will no longer include a comments section, click-through info cards, end screens, notification functions, and the community tab, all powerful tools for driving viewers back to a channel.

The consequences for not labeling a video as “child-directed” could be even more severe. In its September order, the FTC made it clear that it could sue individual channel owners who abuse this new labeling system. Crucially, those lawsuits will fall entirely on channel owners, rather than on YouTube itself. Under the settlement, YouTube’s responsibility is simply to maintain the system and provide ongoing data updates.

In a video explaining the changes to creators, YouTube explicitly declined to tell channel owners when to label a video. “Ultimately, we can’t provide legal advice,” it said. “We’re unable to confirm whether or not your content is Made for Kids. That decision is up to you taking into consideration these factors.” YouTube goes on to ask creators to consult with a lawyer if they need help determining whether their content appeals to younger audiences.

If the FTC does take action against channel owners, it’s likely to be both selective and heavy-handed. The FTC is a small agency and doesn’t employ nearly enough staffers to tackle every COPPA failure that gets uploaded to YouTube. (Chairman Joe Simons has repeatedly called for more money to address the staff shortage.) With so much content uploaded to YouTube every day, the FTC is likely to focus on high-profile cases against popular channels. Under COPPA, the FTC is entitled to seek $42,000 for each mislabeled video, which means monetary damages could quickly grow to a staggering scale.

In its video yesterday, YouTube also pledged to use machine learning and flagging algorithms to locate child-directed videos that may have been mislabeled. Creators won’t be able to appeal those decisions, though a YouTube spokesperson said the company will be listening to feedback. If the algorithms aren’t effective, YouTube could stop using them entirely and face no threat from the FTC for doing so, leaving creators solely accountable and open to potentially life-altering fines from the government.

“It would certainly be more helpful for protecting children and being something that the FTC could enforce and something that families could rely upon as trustworthy if YouTube was taking a bigger role and helping to identify content” and was more transparent about the consequences and rules with creators, Johnson said.

Correction, November 13th at 8:13 pm ET: Creators won’t actually be able to appeal YouTube’s decisions about whether their videos are directed at kids, under the new policy. Added that the new system will begin rolling out in 2020.