YouTube gets in trouble with FTC, throws creators under the bus

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COPPA, also known as the Children’s Online Protection and Privacy Act, has been big in the news since early Sep. 2019, when the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) announced that they were going to sue Google for YouTube’s violations of the child protection act. They sued because YouTube had been using targeted advertisements for kids 13 or younger and without parental consent. YouTube had to pay $170 million and change the settings on their platform, hence a “made for kids” box is now included when a creator publishes their videos to YouTube.

The FTC now plans to fine creators specifically, when in violation of COPPA. Why doesn’t a creator just mark their video for kids and not risk a fine? There are several reasons, but most importantly targeted ads will be turned off for videos that are made for kids. Since 90 percent of a creator’s ad revenue is dependent on targeted ads, they will be losing a lot of money for each video marked “for kids.” Creators will also lose the comments section on their videos, not show up on the recommended videos feed and subscribers will not be able to receive notifications on new videos. Those videos will not be searchable either.

While creators may be able to identify if their video is for kids or not, YouTube’s algorithm and the FTC can say other wise. This crusade of the FTC will take effect Jan. 1, 2020. Until then, creators are scrambling to figure out what it means to have kids content or face fines. For platforms that are somewhere in the middle, video gaming channels, animation channels, even lifestyle/vlog channels that may use relevant kids characters from time to time will be under scrutiny. Creators will either need to firmly show that their videos are not kid friendly or they will need to change their content entirely.

How would creators show that their content is not kids friendly though? YouTube has listed guidelines in the help section of YouTube Help based off the FTC guidelines for COPPA They say videos might be directed at kids depending on, “Subject matter of the video… Whether children are your intended or actual audience for the video… Whether the video includes child actors or models… Whether the video includes characters, celebrities, or toys that appeal to children, including animated characters or cartoon figures,” and many other factors.

The FTC has almost the exact same guidelines listed in a Survey of Compliance with COPPA, last conducted in April, 2002. Some noteworthy differences are in the survey instructions in section B-1 where kids content may be identified if language such as, “‘kids only,’ ‘fun,’ ‘free stuff,’ ‘whatever,’ ‘cool,’ ‘duh,’ ‘games,’ ‘Ask your parents….’”are used. Also in section B-2 where content may be considered kids content if, “animated characters, bold or fast-moving graphics, or bright and vibrant colors,” are used on the site. 

The guidelines on the FTC are not clear enough and creators are worried. Lots of channels are covering this topic to inform their community, but how can it make a difference? What does it matter if everyone knows that the FTC is going after creators if they can’t do anything to stop it.

A public forum was posted on regulations.gov and was available until Dec. 11, 2019 at 11:59 p.m. People who are informed enough to leave a confident comment about the vague and uncertain guidelines the FTC has posted to “protect” creators will be beneficial to possibly changing those guidelines and clearing up any confusion. It’s ridiculous that right now, creators can be fined up to $42 thousand for using bright colors or animated characters that may have nothing to do with kids in their thumbnails or videos.