If you have kids (or if you've read my column before), you might know about know Ryan Kaji, the 7-year-old star of Ryan's Toy Review on YouTube, who earns $22 million a year because of YouTube. 

It makes him (and his parents) the top (and highest-paid) influencer(s) on all of YouTube.

Now however, it's also enough to turn him into YouTube's biggest headache.

The reason: Ryan's Toy Review is being held up now as Exhibit A suggesting that YouTube is violating federal law by collecting private information on users under age 13.

Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts -- who was the author of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) when he was in the House -- asked the Federal Trade Commission this week to look into "extensive evidence that YouTube is violating child users' privacy" and "hold YouTube accountable."

Here's how it all comes together, according to Markey:

  1. COPPA prohibits websites from collecting data from users under age 13.
  2. YouTube claims that it's not a website intended for children, so it doesn't have to worry about COPPA. 
  3. But, as Markey points ot, Ryan's Toy Review is the top channel, and with 19 million subscribers, it "explicitly characterizes itself as '[t]oy reviews for kids, by a kid.'"

Moreover, Ryan's Toy Review is just the most successful of a wide range of kids' channels, which have "millions of subscriptions and views and are clearly directed toward children."

So, here's what the senator wants the FTC to do, beyond beyond just fining YouTube:

  • Require Google to stop collecting any data from users under 13, and delete any data it already has;
  • Force it to come up with a way to identify under 13 users;
  • Prohibit targeted marketing and influencer marketing on YouTube Kids;
  • Make Google undergo an annual COPPA audit;
  • Prohibit Google from launching any new service aimed at kids without an FTC-appointed board's review;
  • Make Google run a campaign about how nobody under 13 should use YouTube and set up a fund to "produce and amplify noncommercial, quality content for children."

I wrote recently about a report that YouTube has been considering two big changes when it comes to kids:

  • Moving all children's content from YouTube into its completely separate, walled app, YouTube Kids.
  • Disabling the autoplay feature on children's content, so kids aren't subjected to an endless stream of videos.

After that report, it became clear that the FTC has already been investigating YouTube for alleged COPPA violations, according to The Washington Post. So perhaps some of the enforcement action Markey is calling for is already underway -- and potentially having some effects.

Now, Markey is a Democrat, so he wouldn't normally seem to have have a lot of power currently, given that Republicans control the senate.

Except for two things:

  • First, he's recently teamed up with a Republican senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, to update the law and make it even harder for Internet companies to track children.
  • And second, we're talking about children. Nobody in Congress wants to be on the wrong side of issues about protecting kids.

Bottom line? If I were running YouTube, I'd want to get out ahead of this.

And if I were running Ryan's Toy Review? I'd start thinking about a home besides YouTube.

Published on: Jun 27, 2019
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