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YouTube will pay up to $200 million after allegedly violating children’s privacy

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Critics say the settlement lets Google ‘off the hook’

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

On Friday, the Federal Trade Commission voted to settle federal privacy charges against YouTube, as first reported by Politico. The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg have corroborated the report, saying the official settlement will likely be made public next week.

The exact terms of the settlement are unclear, but Google will reportedly pay fines between $150 and $200 million. The charges stem from data collection and targeting practices in YouTube, which consumer groups alleged violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Some details of the settlement had been reported in July by The Washington Post, but they were not finalized until today’s vote.

The same day as the vote, YouTube unveiled a new web portal for YouTube Kids, along with a set of more discerning content filters. The platform has made a number of policy changes in response to the pending settlement in recent weeks, most notably instituting an explicit ban on violent or “mature” videos that appear to be marketed toward children. The video service has also banned targeted ads on children’s videos, making the videos significantly less lucrative for creators and threatening an entire genre of YouTube content.

Reached by The Verge, YouTube declined to comment on the news. The FTC also declined to comment.

YouTube’s critics reacted to the fine with dismay, seeing it as a slap on the wrist compared to the significant privacy violations that had been alleged. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who had long called for an investigation of potential COPPA violations at YouTube, called the fine “a partisan settlement.”

“Once again, this FTC appears to have let a powerful company off the hook with a nominal fine for violating users’ privacy online,” Markey said in a statement. “We owe it to kids to come down hard on companies that infringe on children’s’ privacy and violate federal law.”

A number of privacy groups echoed that sentiment. “Under COPPA, the children’s privacy law, the FTC had authority to impose tens of billions in fines against Google,” said consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. “A penalty of no more than $200 million utterly fails to protect children’s rights. It neither punishes Google adequately nor deters Google or other companies from future violations.”

Similar concerns were raised in July when the FTC levied a $5 billion fine against Facebook for violations in connection with Cambridge Analytica and other data breaches. It was the largest FTC fine ever levied against a tech company, but many Facebook critics found it insufficient in comparison with Facebook’s $55 billion in annual profits, with one lawmaker calling the settlement “historically hollow.”

Update 3:05PM ET: Updated with confirmations from Bloomberg and WSJ.

Update 3:24PM ET: Updated with “no comment” from FTC.