- YouTube has been accused of breaching UK data laws that protect children
- Duncan McCann claims it collects information on the viewing habits of under 13s
- Video platform could face a fine of £17.5 million or four per cent of its turnover
A father-of-three has accused YouTube of gathering data on the viewing habits of up to five million British children under the age of 13.
Duncan McCann, Head of Accountability at the 5Rights Foundation, says this data includes where children are watching from, what device they are using and their video preferences.
‘Imagine YouTube as an adult stranger following your child “online” with a virtual clipboard recording everything they do,’ Mr McCann said.
‘That is what is happening every day, and they are not just doing it with your child.
‘They are doing it with up to five million other UK children as well, resulting in an enormous amount of personal information being gathered.’
The allegation puts YouTube in breach of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) so-called ‘age-appropriate design code’.
WHAT IS THE ‘AGE-APPROPRIATE DESIGN CODE’?
The age-appropriate design code contains 15 standards that online services need to follow.
This ensures they are complying with the their obligations under data protection law to protect children’s data online.
Online services covered by the code are wide ranging and include apps, games, connected toys and devices; and news services.
Online services must adhere to this code in order to comply with UK data protection laws regarding children’s personal information.
5Rights says this is the first complaint to be made against a major tech firm for breaching the age-appropriate design code since it was introduced in September 2021.
The ICO said it will ‘consider this complaint carefully’, and Mr McCann said it has three months to inform him whether it will take the investigation on.
YouTube could be slapped with a huge fine of up to £17.5 million, or four per cent of its worldwide turnover, if found in breach of the code, according to lawyer and data protection expert Jonathan Compton from DMH Stallard.
He said: ‘The ICO has a range of powers and penalties at its disposal.
‘It can serve an Enforcement, an Assessment or an Information Notice – requiring the delivery up of documents and information – and a power to levy a fine of up to £17.5m or four per cent of worldwide turnover, whichever is the higher.
‘Those faced with an investigation are better advised to co-operate and enter into voluntary arrangements with the ICO if at all possible.’
Mr McCann believes YouTube should change the design of its platform, adjust the algorithm that drives recommended videos and targets adverts, and delete the data it has gathered from children under 13.
The platform’s terms of service says that users must be at least 13 years old to use it, and offers YouTube Kids for younger viewers.
But Mr McCann told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that YouTube is ‘trying to have their cake and eat it’ as Ofcom figures show many children under 13 use the main platform to watch ‘loads and loads’ of videos.
5Rights says its work aims to ensure children’s needs and rights are not ignored in digital design so the same freedoms, protections and privileges that young people are entitled to offline also apply online.
Baroness Kidron, the founder of 5Rights, said: ‘We are supporting Mr McCann’s effort to ensure compliance with data law that protects children.
‘It is well established that data privacy regimes are central to the safety of children online.
‘Data law is not a pick and mix of what elements companies want to adhere to, it is a holistic approach that requires companies to offer children the highest degree of data privacy and in doing so lessen their exposure to harmful experiences and exploitation online.’
Stephen Bonner, ICO deputy commissioner, said: ‘The Children’s Code makes clear that children are not like adults online, and their data needs meaningful protections.
‘We’ll consider this complaint carefully.
‘Parents expect their children to be protected online, and as a regulator we expect children’s data to be protected online. If that’s not the case, we’ll take action.
‘We’ve seen improvements in how children are treated online as a result of our work around the Children’s Code, including fewer targeted adverts and new parental supervision tools.’
A YouTube spokesman said: ‘Over the years, we’ve made investments to protect kids and families, such as launching a dedicated kids app, introducing new data practices for children’s content, and providing more age-appropriate experiences.
‘Building on that long-standing approach and following the additional guidance provided by the code, we implemented further measures to bolster children’s privacy on YouTube, such as more protective default settings and a dedicated YouTube Supervised Experience.
‘We remain committed to continuing our engagement with the ICO on this priority work, and with other key stakeholders including children, parents and child protection experts.’
In 2019, a report revealed that YouTube was to pay a multimillion-dollar penalty from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over the way it handled information about children on its platform.
Users raised concerned about the way it collects information about minors and how they the can see adverts specifically targeting them.
WHAT DATA DOES YOUTUBE COLLECT?
Google, YouTube’s parent company, collects information based on app usage, including:
- Their device type, operating system and browser type
- Their device’s IP address
- App activity, including the video they watch, search terms and interactions with ads
- Personal information, such as name, email address, and phone number, provided through a Google Account
This information is collected to provide users with personalised content and targeted advertising.
YouTube’s terms of service says users must be at least 13 years old, however Ofcom figures show many children under that age use the main platform rather than YouTube Kids.