A new research by Adalytics, a company that analyzes online advertising performance, has revealed that YouTube may have violated the children’s online privacy law by allowing ads for adult products and services to appear on videos designated as “made for kids”. The research also found that some of these ads may have led to online tracking of children across the web by placing cookies on their browsers.
How YouTube Ads Work
YouTube is one of the most popular online platforms for children, with millions of videos featuring cartoons, songs, games, and educational content. YouTube allows advertisers to target their ads to specific audiences based on various criteria, such as age, gender, location, interests, and keywords. Advertisers can also use Google’s ad-targeting system, which employs artificial intelligence to pinpoint ideal customers based on their online behavior and preferences.
However, YouTube also has to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires children’s online services to obtain parental consent before collecting personal data from users under age 13 for purposes like ad targeting. In 2019, YouTube agreed to pay a $170 million fine to settle allegations that it had violated COPPA by collecting data from children without parental consent. YouTube then said it would limit the collection of viewers’ data and stop serving personalized ads on children’s videos.
What the Research Found?
Adalytics conducted a study between June and August 2023, in which it analyzed more than 2,000 YouTube videos that were labeled as “made for kids” by their creators or by YouTube itself. The study found that more than 300 brands had placed ads for adult products and services on these videos, such as credit cards, insurance, alcohol, gambling, and dating apps. Some of these ads also contained sexual or violent imagery that may be inappropriate for children.
The study also found that some of these ads may have enabled online tracking of children by placing cookies on their browsers when they clicked on them. Cookies are small files that store information about a user’s online activity and preferences. They can be used by advertisers to track the ads a user clicks on and the websites they visit, and to serve them more relevant ads in the future.
Adalytics said that it observed persistent Google cookies on children’s videos, including an advertising cookie called IDE. When a viewer clicked on an ad, the same cookie also appeared on the ad page they landed on. This suggests that Google may have been able to link the user’s activity on YouTube with their activity on other websites.
What YouTube and Advertisers Say?
YouTube denied the findings of the research and said that it was “deeply flawed and misleading”. A spokesperson for Google, which owns YouTube, said that the research did not account for the fact that some videos may have been mislabeled as “made for kids” by their creators or by YouTube’s automated system. The spokesperson also said that YouTube did not have the ability to control data collection on a brand’s website after a YouTube viewer clicked on an ad. Such data-gathering, Google said, could happen when clicking on an ad on any website.
Google also said that it gave brands a one-click option to exclude their ads from appearing on YouTube videos made for children. However, some of the brands whose ads appeared on children’s videos said that they were unaware of this option or that they had used it but still saw their ads run on kids’ videos.
Some of the brands whose ads were identified by Adalytics include Bank of Montreal (BMO), Kohl’s, Microsoft, Amazon, Meta (formerly Facebook), and GoPro. BMO said that it had instructed its advertising agency to exclude its ads from children’s videos and that it was investigating how its ads ended up on them. Kohl’s did not respond to several requests for comment. Microsoft said that it was committed to privacy and that it was seeking more information to conduct any further investigation needed. Amazon said that it prohibited advertisers from collecting children’s data with its tools. Meta declined to comment.
What Experts and Advocates Say?
The research by Adalytics has raised concerns among experts and advocates who have been warning about the dangers of online tracking of children by tech giants, advertisers, and data brokers. They say that such tracking can expose children to inappropriate or harmful content, influence their behavior and preferences, and violate their right to privacy.
“They have created a conveyor belt that is scooping up the data of children,” said Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit focused on digital privacy. He added that YouTube had failed to protect children from predatory advertising and tracking practices despite its promises and legal obligations.
Angela Campbell, a law professor at Georgetown University who specializes in children’s media policy, said that YouTube should be held accountable for its actions and face more scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers. She also said that parents should be more aware of the risks of online tracking and demand more transparency and control over their children’s data.
“It should not be this difficult to make sure that children’s data isn’t inappropriately collected and used,” she said.