Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) demanded Thursday that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigate social media company YouTube over potential violations of how it is tracking and targeting children on their platforms.
YouTube is owned by tech giant Google.
“YouTube and Google cannot continue treating young people’s data as an unprotected commodity from which to profit with abandon. Not only must the FTC Act, but Congress must also pass legislation to protect young people’s privacy online and finally ban targeted advertising to kids and teens,” the lawmakers wrote to the FTC.
The bipartisan push for the FTC to probe the Google subsidiary followed the release of a report from the ad quality and transparency platform Adalytics on Thursday morning, and a report from the New York Times about the findings.
The Adalytics report found that YouTube set “long-lasting cookies,” or small portions of text sent to a browser based on what websites a user visits, that allowed ad targeting and tracking on browsers for viewers of YouTube videos “clearly labeled as ‘for kids.’”
YouTube strongly pushed back on the report’s allegations, calling them “deeply flawed and misleading.”
“The report makes completely false claims and draws uninformed conclusions based solely on the presence of cookies, which are widely used in these contexts for the purposes of fraud detection and frequency capping — both of which are permitted under COPPA,” the company said in a statement, referring to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
“The portions of this report that were shared with us didn’t identify a single example of these policies being violated,” YouTube added.
The report found that viewers of the “made for kids” YouTube videos appear to be clicking on ads and allowing brands’ websites to harvest and share metadata from those viewers with data brokers.
The report stated that it does not allege any entities “knowingly or intentionally harvest data from kids” or violated COPPA or other laws.
However, it is raising concerns with senators who are already wary of how YouTube and other tech companies handle children’s data and are looking to update existing laws.
“This behavior by YouTube and Google is estimated to have impacted hundreds of thousands, to potentially millions, of children across the United States. As such, YouTube and Google may have violated COPPA — as well as its 2019 FTC consent decree — in an egregious manner,” Markey and Blackburn wrote in their letter to the agency.
In addition to COPPA, YouTube agreed to additional commitments as part of its settlement in 2019 with the agency over allegations of violating COPPA.
At the time, YouTube committed to treat data from anyone watching children’s content on YouTube as coming from a child, to limit data collection and use on videos made for kids and to stop serving personalized ads on that content entirely.
Markey’s COPPA 2.0 proposal, which would update the law to include new regulations such as banning targeted advertising to children, advanced out of the Senate Commerce Committee with bipartisan support in July.
The proposal advanced out of the committee last session, as well, but failed to receive a floor vote by the end of the year.
A spokesperson for the FTC declined to comment.