Google agrees to record fine for violating children’s privacy

Regulators say Google-owned YouTube violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act by gathering data on users under the age of 13

Democratic Sen. Edward J. Markey, a frequent critic of Google and YouTube, called fines against the tech giants announced Wednesday “let Google off the hook with a drop-in-tbe bucket fine.” (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Google agreed to pay a $170 million fine and overhaul privacy policies on YouTube after regulators said the company illegally gathered data on underage users and allowed advertisers to use the information to target children with advertisements, regulators announced Wednesday.

The settlement, reached with New York State Attorney General Letitia James and the Federal Trade Commission, is the largest ever resulting from a violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, known as COPPA. New York will receive $34 million of the settlement, and the remainder will go to the federal government.

Regulators said YouTube, which is owned by Google, gathered data on users under the age of 13, a violation under COPPA.

“Google and YouTube knowingly and illegally monitored, tracked, and served targeted ads to young children just to keep advertising dollars rolling in,” James said in a statement. “These companies put children at risk and abused their power.”

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In a blog post, YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki said “nothing is more important than protecting kids and their privacy.”

“From its earliest days, YouTube has been a site for people over 13, but with a boom in family content and the rise of shared devices, the likelihood of children watching without supervision has increased,” she wrote.

In addition to the fine, Google and YouTube agreed to develop a system requiring users to designate their videos as being geared toward children. The companies will also train employees who work with content providers in COPPA compliance. And they will obtain parental consent before collecting or disclosing any data on underage users, regulators said.

“The order prevents Google and YouTube from turning a blind eye to content aimed at children on the YouTube platform,” FTC Chairman Joe Simons said at a news conference on Wednesday.

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Simons noted that none of the steps Google and YouTube will take are required under COPPA and said the requirements should send a message to other companies.

“The FTC takes its obligation to enforce COPPA seriously,” Simons said. “If companies violate COPPA, the FTC will take aggressive action, require corrective measures and use its authority to seek substantial civil penalties.”

But critics of Google and YouTube scoffed at the fine. Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Massachusetts, who has introduced bipartisan legislation to bolster measures for protecting children under COPPA with Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, said on Twitter that the FTC “let Google off the hook with a drop-in-the-bucket fine.”

“Not a single Google executive or investor will bat an eye,” Markey said.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-New Jersey, and Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, who chairs the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, said the settlement didn't go far enough. They said it underscores the need for federal privacy legislation to regulate big technology companies that collect information on Americans of all ages.

“Comprehensive federal privacy legislation is critical to provide clear protections and impose strict penalties on companies that abuse personal information, especially children’s information,” the two lawmakers said in a statement.

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