Google has placed ads for hundreds of brands — including major advertisers such as Kimberly-Clark, General Motors and Procter & Gamble — on “made for kids” YouTube videos that may have triggered widespread tracking of children online, according to an explosive new report.
The report by Adalytics, which analyzes media buys on behalf of agencies and brands, delves into ads from 313 advertisers placed on YouTube channels designated as “made for kids” and the data collection that follows after a user clicks on one of the ads.
It alleges that “dozens” of major ad tech and data brokers are harvesting data from viewers — most likely children — who click on such ads. YouTube treats data from anyone watching children’s content on its platform “as coming from a child, regardless of the age of the user,” according to a 2019 statement from then-CEO Susan Wojcicki.
Collecting children’s personal data for purposes such as ad targeting requires websites and online services to obtain parental consent under U.S. federal law, The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
That said, websites and vendors that may, inadvertently or not, end up receiving cookies from users who have clicked ads on YouTube’s “made for kids” content would not trigger COPPA liability, according to Paul Lekas, head of global public policy at the SIIA. This is because COPPA requires that websites have “actual knowledge” the personal information they are collecting is from children younger than 13.
“In this instance, the visitor has come from a site that is directed to children but that doesn't necessarily mean they are a child,” said Lekas. “Absent the ‘actual knowledge’ I believe they wouldn’t have that obligation under COPPA.”
YouTube’s role in “helping to facilitate users to go to websites where their information can be collected is not within the scope of how COPPA functions right now,” according to Cobun Zweifel-Keegan, managing director of the International Association of Privacy Professionals.
The Adalytics report, which was first covered by The New York Times, also states that YouTube drops advertising-related cookies on viewers of kids content with the IDE cookie — which is used to show ads to signed-out users — appearing in some tests it conducted.
Google said it uses such cookies “solely for purposes unrelated to personalized advertising” including for measurement, fraud prevention and frequency capping. It added these cookies would not be readable by a third-party website and do not enable advertisers to identify who a user is or what video they viewed.
Cookies that collect information for non-targeted advertising purposes are not regulated by COPPA, according to Zweifel-Keegan. “Those kinds of purposes fall outside of the requirement to seek verifiable parental consent.”
“Cookies are not necessarily a bad thing — it’s the type of information that they collect, who it goes to and the purpose for which it’s collected and used that really matters,” he added.
Adalytics alleges that some ads served on “made for kids” YouTube videos contain demographic and behavioral targeting; Google has contended that it blocks ad targeting to people younger than 18 based on their age, gender or interests.
Google has called the report “deeply flawed and misleading,” and it has denied that its findings demonstrate a violation of COPPA.
“The portions of this report that were shared with us didn’t identify a single example of these policies being violated,” it said in a statement.
Even if Google is in the clear based on current COPPA guidelines, the report has nevertheless attracted the attention of U.S. lawmakers.
On Thursday, two U.S. senators sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking it conduct an “urgent investigation” into whether Google and YouTube had violated COPPA by facilitating “the vast collection and distribution” of children’s data.
“This behavior by YouTube and Google is estimated to have impacted hundreds of thousands, to potentially millions, of children across the United States,” Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) wrote.
Google and YouTube entered into an agreement with the FTC in 2019 to limit the collection of viewers’ data and stop serving personalized ads on children’s videos. It came after the company was fined a record $170 million by the FTC and the State of New York over allegations that it had illegally collected personal information from children watching kids’ channels.
Adalytics initiated the research after it found a “significant proportion” of video ads brokered by Google through its TrueView ad format were being served on YouTube channels that appeared to be targeted to young children.
The discovery was made during Adalytics’ prior research into alleged quality issues within TrueView campaigns that prompted Google to issue refunds to some advertisers.
Serving ads on children’s content is permissible by law and has been a common practice for decades. A wide range of brands purposefully run ads in environments they know children will be in to build early brand affinity with them or to reach their parents. For example, car manufacturers have designed ads specifically to appeal to children in recognition that they influence family car purchases.
But ads placed by Google within “made for kids” content often occurs against a brand or agency’s wishes, according to the Adalytics report.
The report said several media buyers routinely add new YouTube channels to their exclusion lists to avoid having their ads served within children’s environments, only to find a new placement pop up weeks later, a process described by the report as a “game of Whac-a-Mole.”
Part of the issue, according to the report, stems from Google’s automated campaign format Performance Max, through which Google’s machine learning algorithm decides where to place ads across Google’s inventory, based on the advertisers’ set goals.
Adalytics said there were several instances where Performance Max placed ads on “made for kids” YouTube videos, unbeknownst to the advertiser. Performance Max campaigns do not break down which specific channels or audiences were used in a given advertiser’s campaign — a sticking point for media buyers.
Google said it offers advertisers a one-click option to opt out of "made for kids" content on YouTube, which, it said, also works across Performance Max campaigns.