Privacy Groups Slam Google's Ad Practices on YouTube Kids

Programming provided to children via the YouTube Kids mobile app routinely mixes marketing messaging with programming in a deceptive manner, the privacy groups say.

Google's YouTube Kids app

Several privacy groups have slammed Google for its advertising practices with regard to its recently launched YouTube Kids mobile app for smartphones and tablets.

In a letter to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) April 7, a coalition of 10 privacy groups accused Google of using the application to deliver marketing messages to children using unfair and deceptive marketing practices. The groups called on the Commission to investigate what they said were at least three different types of marketing practices being used by Google that are not permitted.

The groups that sent the letter include the Center for Digital Democracy, Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, Children Now, American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry and Public Citizen.

YouTube Kids is a free mobile application that Google released earlier this year specifically for kids. Available via the Google Play store and Apple's App Store, it is positioned as an app that provides children with programming that is both entertaining and educative.

The privacy groups, however, contend that their inspection of the application suggests a far different reality.

The videos provided to children on YouTube Kids intermix commercial content with other content in a manner that would not be permitted on commercial or broadcast cable, the groups said.

Many of the apparently "user generated" video segments on YouTube Kids also have undisclosed relationships with product manufacturers, a practice that is again in violation of FTC rules pertaining to endorsements and testimonials in advertising, they said.

In addition, "in marketing the app to parents, Google claims that 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," the letter said in urging the FTC investigation.

"Therefore, we ask the FTC to take action to stop these and any other deceptive or unfair practices uncovered as a result of its investigation."

In an emailed statement, Google pushed back against the privacy groups' characterization of its marketing practices on YouTube Kids.

"We worked with numerous partners and child advocacy groups when developing YouTube Kids," the statement said. "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," it noted.

"We disagree and think that great content shouldn't be reserved for only those families who can afford it."

Tuesday's letter to the FTC contains several examples of what the privacy groups described as the troubling amount of marketing messages that are presented as programming in YouTube Kids. For example, multiple brands, such as McDonald's, Barbie, Fisher Price and LEGO, have their own channels with mostly advertising content even though there are not labeled that way. Program-length commercials that would be considered unfair and deceptive for children's television are relatively common on YouTube Kids and give children no way to distinguish that the video they are watching is actually a commercial, the privacy groups said.

The manner in which Google promotes the app to parents of young children is also deceptive, the letter said. Google claims that its ad practices prohibit certain types of advertising and that all ads that appear on the app are vetted for compliance with Google's policies.

"However, because so many of the videos are actually program-length commercials or utilize unfair and deceptive advertising practices with respect to children, it is misleading to claim the videos are 'appropriate for kids,'" the privacy groups said.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.