Business

Feds probe YouTube over children's privacy

Invesitgation comes after consumer groups' complaints

A man checks a mobile device while standing against an illuminated wall bearing YouTube Inc.s logo in this arranged photograph in London on Jan. 5, 2016. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Chris Ratcliffe.
A man checks a mobile device while standing against an illuminated wall bearing YouTube Inc.s logo in this arranged photograph in London on Jan. 5, 2016. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Chris Ratcliffe.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is in the late stages of an investigation into YouTube for its handling of children’s videos, according to four people familiar with the matter.

The probe threatens the company with a potential fine and already has prompted the tech giant to re-evaluate some of its business practices.

The Federal Trade Commission launched the investigation after numerous complaints from consumer groups and privacy advocates, according to the four people who requested anonymity because such probes are supposed to be confidential.

The complaints contended YouTube, which is owned by Google, failed to protect children who used the streaming-video service and improperly collected their data.

As the investigation has progressed, YouTube executives in recent months have accelerated internal discussions about broad changes to how the platform handles children’s videos, according to a person familiar with the company’s plans.

That includes potential changes to its algorithm for recommending and queuing up videos for users, including children — part of an ongoing effort at YouTube over the past year and a half to overhaul its software and policies to prevent abuse.

A spokeswoman for YouTube, Andrea Faville, declined to comment on the FTC probe. In a statement, she emphasized that not all discussions about product changes come to fruition.

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“We consider lots of ideas for improving YouTube, and some remain just that — ideas,” she said.

“Others, we develop and launch, like our restrictions to minors live-streaming or updated hate speech policy.”

The FTC declined to comment, citing its policy against confirming or denying non-public investigations.

The Wall Street Journal first reported Wednesday that YouTube was considering moving all children’s content off the service into a separate app, YouTube Kids, to better protect younger viewers from problematic material.

Such a change would be difficult to implement because of the sheer volume of content on YouTube, and potentially could be costly to the company in lost advertising revenue.

A person close to the company said that option was highly unlikely, but that other changes were on the table.

YouTube Kids gets a tiny fraction of the YouTube’s audience, which tops 1.9 billion users logging in each month. Children tend to switch from YouTube Kids to the main platform around the age of seven, Bloomberg reported this week.

The internal conversations come after years of complaints by consumer advocates and independent researchers that YouTube had become a leading conduit for political disinformation, hate speech, conspiracy theories and content threatening the well-being of children.

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