YouTube, COPPA, and Twelve-Year-Old Lawyers


YouTube,
as anybody who is reading this online probably knows, is a video-streaming
service owned by Google.  Because Google
makes money from ads that go along with its services, it is in Google’s
interest to make such services as easily accessible as possible to the most
people.  Accessing YouTube requires only
the ability to spell, or maybe even just to point on a smartphone screen to an
icon.  Such skills are easily mastered by
children as young as eight. 

In
April of 2017, USA Today carried a
story about an eight-year-old boy in Ohio who not only figured out how to watch
YouTube, but learned how to drive a car by watching instructional videos.  He and his four-year-old sister waited until
their parents were asleep one day.  Then
they went out to the family car and drove to McDonald’s, where he used his
piggy-bank money to buy a cheeseburger. 
People who saw him on his way to the restaurant and called the cops when
they figured out what was happening nevertheless said he obeyed all the traffic
laws and didn’t hit a thing. 

COPPA
stands for the Children’s Online Privacy Protection
Act of 1998, a federal law that prohibits collecting online data from children
under 13 without the consent of parents. 
Last April, a coalition of childrens’ privacy protection groups filed a
complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that YouTube does indeed
collect data from kids under 13—location, usage habits, and more.  And just last week, a pair of U. S.
representatives, one Democrat and one Republican, wrote a letter to Google
chair Sundar Pichai to ask him how his company uses data collected on those
under 13.

The only substantive response from the company so far on these
matters has been the following:
  Protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us.
Because YouTube is not for children, we’ve invested
significantly in the creation of the YouTube Kids app to offer an alternative
specifically designed for children. We appreciate all efforts to protect
families and children online and look forward to working with members of
Congress to answer their questions.”

Of course, kids get into all sorts of things that aren’t intended
for them, YouTube included.  The only
barrier that keeps kids under 13 away from YouTube is item 12 in the YouTube
Terms and Conditions, which reads in part, “
In any case, you affirm that
you are over the age of 13, as the Service is not intended for children under
13. If you are under 13 years of age, then please do not use the Service. There
are lots of other great web sites for you. Talk to your parents about what
sites are appropriate for you.”

A recent Roz Chast cartoon in The New Yorker portrayed an updated
carnival freak-show sign, and one of the featured creatures was “The Man Who
Actually Read the Terms and Conditions.” 
If I had a twelve-year-old child who came to me and told me that she had
dutifully read the YouTube terms and conditions, and said to me, “Paragraph 12
told me to talk to you about what sites are appropriate for me,” I’d tell her
to go check out the Harvard Law School application page.  And then I’d probably never forgive myself
for having raised a lawyer. 

Everyone, including the
lawyers who wrote those terms and conditions, knows that the chances of a child
actually reading Paragraph 12 and acting on it are indistinguishable from
zero.  But technically and legally, YouTube
has told precocious under-13 lawyers, and anyone else in that age category,
that they shouldn’t be watching YouTube. 
Presumably, the company’s default position on this issue is, “Well, we
warned kids to stay away and not to lie to us about their age.  What else can we do?”

And that is the question.  Displaying content that is inappropriate for
young children is bad enough, but collecting data on them is
illegal—technically, according to COPPA. 
But here again, we run into a legal fiction.  While there are all sorts of good laws on the
books to prevent this sort of thing, laws are pointless unless they are
enforced.  And as far as I know, the
filing of the childrens’ privacy group complaint to the FTC has vanished into
the federal bureaucracy, and Sundar Pichai has not yet replied to the letter
from David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska). 

This whole situation begins to
remind me disquietingly of a joke that was told about the way work got done in
the old Soviet Union.  When a Western
tourist asked a worker privately about conditions in a town in Siberia where
the pay was low and the store shelves were almost empty, he replied, “Well, we
pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” 

YouTube pretends to keep
children under 13 from watching it, and when that doesn’t work, the federal
government and its representatives pretend to try to do something about
it.  I normally don’t like sounding
cynical, but sometimes the level of hypocrisy gets so high that you simply
can’t ignore it.

I am not accusing either
privacy groups or members of Congress of hypocrisy in this case.  Filing complaints and writing letters are
sincere efforts to do something about the situation.  But so far, they appear to be just as
ineffectual as YouTube’s Paragraph 12 in keeping kids from being exploited or
having their innocence (remember innocence?) stripped from them. 

Every age has its public priorities—institutions and ways of doing
things that are so accepted and even praised that they cannot be seriously
challenged.  Slavery was one such priority
until less than two hundred years ago, but that finally changed for the
better.  Perhaps kids watching YouTube
videos and having their data used by Google is not the worst thing that can
happen to them.  But it’s one tip of the
iceberg of this culture’s neglect and exploitation of children that will have
long-term effects that we may not even understand for decades, let alone be
able to do anything about. 

The first step toward righting a wrong is to recognize it as
wrong.  A few people are questioning
whether a giant corporation should get away with pretending it’s not doing
something that it’s doing, at the expense of children.  And that is a good first step, but only the
first step on a long journey.

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