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Google will pay $170 million for YouTube’s child privacy violations

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It’s the largest COPPA fine in history

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

On Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission announced that it is fining Google $170 million following the agency’s investigation into YouTube over alleged violations of a children’s privacy law.

In the settlement, the FTC and the New York attorney general allege that Google marketed its video platform, YouTube, to advertisers knowing that many channels were popular with younger audiences. It also alleges that the company tracked the viewing histories of children in order to serve them ads, which violates the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The $170 million fine is the largest COPPA fine to date, dwarfing the fine TikTok’s parent company received last February for violations of the same law.

“YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons. “Yet when it came to complying with COPPA, the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids. There’s no excuse for YouTube’s violations of the law.”

The settlement was agreed to on a 3-2 party-line vote, with the Republican commissioners voting to approve it. Details of the settlement leaked last week, but they were only confirmed by the agency today.

The settlement also requires that Google make new changes to its business practices, like requiring creators to label content intended for younger audiences and halting the data collection on videos clearly targeting minors. It’s unclear how YouTube has defined content that targets minors, but it said in the blog that its algorithms will seek to label content that has “an emphasis on kids characters, themes, toys, or games.”

In a blog post responding to the settlement on Wednesday, YouTube wrote, “Starting in four months, we will treat data from anyone watching children’s content on YouTube as coming from a child, regardless of the age of the user.” It continued, “This means that we will limit data collection and use on videos made for kids only to what is needed to support the operation of the service.”

YouTube also noted that comments and notifications will no longer be available on children’s content like this as well. The platform will also stop serving targeted ads on this kind of content.

This settlement with Google is the FTC’s most recent attempt at remedying Silicon Valley’s privacy violations. Just last month, Facebook was fined $5 billion by the agency after a year-long investigation into the company’s privacy violations following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

For months, lawmakers and consumer protection groups have railed against YouTube, alleging violations of the children’s privacy law. In a statement today, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who authored COPPA, shamed the FTC for not going further. “The FTC pulled the curtain back on this practice, but it did not go far enough to put in place critical new rules for accountability,” he said. “The FTC let Google off the hook with a drop-in-the-bucket fine and a set of new requirements that fall well short of what is needed to turn YouTube into a safe and healthy place for kids.”

Democratic commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter also criticized the settlement, saying in a statement, “This order will make YouTube safer for children than it has been, but, without a backstop to catch inappropriately designated content, it will not make YouTube safe enough.” She continued, “More action is needed, and I hope that our partners in state attorneys’ general offices can finish the job.”

Slaughter also noted in her dissent that the FTC could have gone further in requiring children’s content to be properly labeled on the platform, suggesting that the agency requires too little of Google in disciplining creators who mislabel their content.