A coalition of consumer and children's groups filed a complaint this week alleging that Google's YouTube Kids app violates the Federal Trade Commission's rules on unfair and deceptive practices, and has asked the FTC to investigate. The complaint alleges that the app, which primarily serves kids, employs misleading marketing techniques, thereby violating regulations intended to shield children from the negative effects of advertising.
Launched in February of this year, the YouTube Kids app includes both branded content (a McDonald's and a Barbie channel) as well as clips of popular kids TV shows (My Little Pony and Sesame Street). The advocacy groups behind the complaint — including the Center for Digital Democracy, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Public Citizen— contend that YouTube Kids exploits the vulnerabilities of a child's cognition by blending advertising with other types of content. The groups also argue that YouTube Kids promotes user-generated videos without disclosing the relationship those videos' producers have with product manufacturers, and that the app violates its own ad policies. Finally, the complaint calls attention to YouTube Kids' mixing of commercial and noncommercial videos in a way that could make it difficult for a child to realize when a show ends and when an ad begins.
According to Dale Kunkel, professor of Communication at the University of Arizona who was involved with the preparation of the complaint, the Federal Communications Commission has regulated against these practices on TV in order to protect children, whose developing brains are unable to discern the accuracy and intent of advertisements. "Children are more easily persuadable, and because of that there have been long-standing legal protections to children when they watch television," he told BuzzFeed News.
But the FCC restrictions apply to only broadcast and cable TV. The complaint requests that the FTC, which regulates advertising in all media, applies these same protections to children in the digital environment, Kunkel said — starting with products such as YouTube Kids.
"Much of the content on YouTube Kids would violate long-standing Federal Communications Commission policies if it aired on television," the complaint states. "And even when children can recognize the difference between ads and programming, they cannot understand that the ads are trying to sell something, which renders them uniquely vulnerable to commercial influence."
One of the exhibits attached to the complaint is a digital copy of the YouTube Kids app advertising policies. In the section for product categories that are restricted, it reads, "food and beverage." The section goes on to state, "products related to consumable food and drinks are prohibited, regardless of nutrition content." The advocacy groups maintain that the app breaches its own rules. They cite a video on the McDonald's channel that's not labeled as advertising. It's called "What are McDonald's Chicken McNuggets made of?"
"Branded Channels, such as the McDonald's channel, take advantage of children because they do not understand that the entire channel is actually advertising," the complaint states.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a YouTube spokesperson said:
We worked with numerous partners and child advocacy groups when developing YouTube Kids. While we are always open to feedback on ways to improve the app, we were not contacted directly by the signers of this letter and strongly disagree with their contentions, including the suggestion that no free, ad-supported experience for kids will ever be acceptable. We disagree and think that great content shouldn't be reserved for only those families who can afford it.
When asked about this suggestion, that the FTC complaint calls for the elimination of child-tailored advertising, Kunkle said, "We are simply asking them to obey the same rules of advertising to children in all other media. Their response troubles me even more than their advertising practices."
The FTC has expressed a strong commitment to consumer protection, especially as it concerns novel forms of technology and data collection. In March, the commission announced the creation of the Office of Technology Research and Investigation, an expansion of its mobile research arm that examined privacy issues within children's mobile apps. Last year the FTC reached settlements with Snapchat and Google over deceptive data retention and the unauthorized purchases by kids, respectively.
"The Commission has received the letter and will review the concerns raised by these groups," the FTC told BuzzFeed News. In all likelihood, it will be weeks before the commission finishes reviewing the complaint, and potentially months before it takes any action.
Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.