Children's Advocates Complain to FTC About YouTube Kids App

Say It Deceptively Mixes Content, Ads
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WASHINGTON — A Coalition of consumer groups is filing a complaint against Google with the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday (April 7) asking it to investigate a YouTube Kids App that they allege deceptively and unfairly blends content and marketing. Google says its takeaway is that no free, ad-supported app would ever be acceptable to the group.

The FTC is empowered to sue companies over unfair and deceptive marketing practices under the FTC Act.

The complaint alleges the YouTube Kids App with:

• "Intermixing advertising and programming in ways that deceive young children, who, unlike adults, lack the cognitive ability to distinguish between the two;

• "Featuring numerous “branded channels” for McDonald’s, Barbie, Fisher-Price, and other companies, which are little more than program-length commercials;" and

• "Distributing so-called ‘user-generated’ segments that feature toys, candy, and other products without disclosing the business relationships that many of the producers of these videos have with the manufacturers of the products, a likely violation of the FTC’s Endorsement Guidelines."

• "[Claiming] all ads are pre-approved by YouTube’s policy team to ensure compliance with the app’s rigorous advertising policy when, in fact, much of the content available on the app violates its own policies.”

"We worked with numerous partners and child advocacy groups when developing YouTube Kids," Google said in response to the complaint. "While we are always open to feedback on ways to improve the app, we were not contacted directly by the signers of this letter and strongly disagree with their contentions, including the suggestion that no free, ad-supported experience for kids will ever be acceptable. We disagree and think that great content shouldn’t be reserved for only those families who can afford it.”

Google launched the free YouTube Kids app in February, calling it a place for age-appropriate videos, channels and playlists, with content from Sesame Street, Thomas & Friends and DreamWorks (Mother Goose Club, for example), all available via big buttons and easy scrolling for "curious little minds." It is available on iTunes and Google Play.

Google said it would be screening videos that make parents nervous, but that has not done anything to calm the nerves of the consumer groups, which include the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Children Now, Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Consumer Watchdog.

The CDD continues to sound the alarm about big media marketing to little kids via the Internet, and the need to protect children's privacy online.

Google, saying it is as focused on kids' online safety as are parents, points out in a blog on the app that parents can "quickly notify" YouTube directly from the app if they find any questionable content. Parents can also turn of the search function to "contain the experience," or can set a timer to indicated when it is time for kids to stop watching the videos.

CDD executive director Jeff Chester conceded that the application does not raise major privacy issues -- at least at the moment -- but suggested that marketing plugs, not the privacy implications, are what’s at issue. Chester said the YouTube site violates many of the basic protections in federal rules regarding young children and TV advertising. “In today’s digital era, children deserve effective safeguards that will protect them regardless of the 'screen’ ” they use,” he said.

To check out screen shots of the content the groups criticize, go here.