It is hard to imagine YouTube without the daily media diet of millions of people. Many young children also use the video platform. But that does not always go well: the Google company has been discredited several times when it comes to this vulnerable target group. This week, YouTube announced new rules to protect young viewers, but critics say the measures are inadequate.
YouTube has long been struggling with how to deal with the presence of young viewers on the platform. In 2017, the company promised to take action after several sources reported pedophiles who would use the reaction section of the video site to come into contact with minors.
This year, The New York Times published a new study in which YouTube's algorithm came under fire: people who had watched content from young children in unknowingly sexual poses or situations received more videos from young children in such situations from the YouTube algorithm .
Record fine after violation of privacy of young children
Last Thursday, YouTube received a record 170 million dollars (almost 154 million euros) for violating the privacy of young children. The video platform collects data from children under the age of thirteen, while this is prohibited under US law without the consent of a parent or guardian.
The American trade watchdog FTC, which settled the amount with YouTube, never paid such a high fine in a child privacy case.
In response to the fine, YouTube announced new measures the same day to protect children's privacy. Creators of YouTube videos will soon have to indicate for themselves whether their videos are intended for viewers younger than thirteen. YouTube does not collect the data from these viewers and no longer offers them advertisements based on their viewing and surfing behavior.
YouTube is also investing an additional $ 100 million in the children's version of the video platform, YouTube Kids, to compensate the makers of children's videos. Whether the measures will be enough to keep children away from the aggressive data collection of YouTube remains to be seen, according to critics.
"That YouTube does not take measures sooner is simply because they earn money from it." Marc Tuters, media scientist University of Amsterdam
The reaction of the company fits in with a trend of many problems that exist on the platform, says media scientist Marc Tuters of the University of Amsterdam. He leads the OILab research group, which investigates how online platforms such as YouTube deal with controversial political subcultures.
"We have seen this before during our investigation. The company is waiting for it to come out, and then announce measures with a big gesture. The reason why they are not doing so earlier is simply because they are making money from it."
YouTube has long argued that the video platform is not aimed at young children; for that it has YouTube Kids. Before they can watch videos on the main YouTube platform, users must indicate that they are over thirteen years old. If they do, they also agree to the YouTube terms and conditions, and the company can offer them targeted advertisements. But that obstacle is easy to get around for children by indicating that they are old enough.
"YouTubers are not going to honestly state that their videos are intended for young children." Dylan Haegens, YouTuber with 1.6 million subscribers
"I wonder if the new system will work," says Dylan Haegens, a Dutch YouTube video maker with more than 1.6 million subscribers on his channel.
His videos will soon, like those of many makers on the platform popular with young people, fall into a gray area. "Do I get a lot of reactions from children under the age of 13? Absolutely! But we are making comedy for a very broad target group: adults, teenagers and very young children. If I have to indicate later whether my videos are intended for young children, I don't know what to do to do." He knows what many others will do: "YouTubers are not going to declare it fairly. Because then they will miss out on income."
The new rules remind him of similar policies from YouTube, where creators must pass it in advance if their videos are only suitable for viewers older than eighteen. "That approach didn't really work either. You have to admit that. People never indicate that their videos are eighteen-plus until users report it to YouTube."
"This type of problem must be tackled by law"
Media scientist Tuters states that the solution is typical of large tech companies such as YouTube and Facebook. According to him, this also fits into a larger trend. "Nobody wants to be told by large tech companies what they can and cannot do, so shifting the responsibility to users feels good in the first instance. But these issues need to be addressed through the legislator as part of democratic decision-making."
The latest measures give YouTube the space to more or less continue on the same footing, without jeopardizing the revenue model, Tuters expects.
"A fine of 170 million dollars does nothing and gives YouTube the signal that it will get away with it." Barry Smit, privacy organization Bits of Freedom
The FTC's fine is in line with a new development where US and European authorities are trying to curb privacy violations and aggressive data collection by tech companies. In this respect, the FTC may, relatively speaking, impose record fines of 170 million dollars, but these are practically negligible, according to Barry Smit of privacy organization Bits of Freedom.
"It's peanuts, " says Smit. "The annual turnover of Google, owner of YouTube, was $ 130 billion last year. So that fine for YouTube is the same as someone with an average income imposing a fine of a few tens. It does not matter and gives the signal that they are using it getting away."
In the meantime, the issue also concerns the children's ombudsmen in various countries. The European Network of Ombudsperson for Children (ENOC) will meet in Belfast at the end of this month to discuss how they can improve children's rights in general. The privacy and security of children in the digital world are high on the agenda.