Tech

Major consumer groups ask FTC to look into 'predatory' data collection of children

Key Points
  • A broad coalition of consumer groups is calling on the Federal Trade Commission to conduct a sweeping review of digital media companies that target children.
  • The groups include powerful advocacy organizations such as the Center for Digital Democracy and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
  • YouTube paid a $170 million settlement this year after an FTC investigation into possible Children's Online Privacy Protection Act violations.
Thomas Barwick | Getty Images

A broad coalition of consumer groups is calling on the Federal Trade Commission to conduct a sweeping review of digital media companies that target children, according to a letter obtained by CNBC.

The coalition includes powerful advocacy organizations such as the Center for Digital Democracy and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which pushed the FTC to investigate Google's YouTube and eventually led the company to pay a record $170 million settlement this fall. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has signed on to the effort as the medical community grows increasingly worried about children's digital environment.

"Since digital technology evolves rapidly, so must our understanding of how data companies are engaging with children's information online," AAP President Dr. Kyle Yasuda said in a statement. "As we pursue the promise of digital media for children's development, we must design robust protections to keep them safe based on an up-to-date understanding of the digital spaces they navigate."

The groups want the FTC to use its subpoena power to force digital media companies to share information about how they advertise to children, track them online, and collect and store their data. Though the letter, which is dated Thursday, does not name specific companies, Josh Golin, executive director of the CCFC, said any review would likely encompass media and tech giants such as Disney and Google as well as apps like TikTok or Amazon's streaming service Twitch.

His group plans to send a follow-up letter to the FTC recommending individual companies to subpoena and will meet with the agency to discuss its concerns next week.

"We need the full power of the law to protect them from predatory data collection, but we can't protect children from Big Tech business models if we don't know how those models truly work," Golin said in a statement.

The FTC is in the midst of reviewing its regulations surrounding the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, the federal law that requires companies to obtain parental consent before collecting data from children younger than 13. It comes as tech giants are under heightened scrutiny in Washington, D.C., and around the world over their handling of personal information. Two of the largest platforms already are tightening their own rules for identifying and advertising to children.

In response to its settlement with the FTC, YouTube will ban personalized ads and disable certain features on any content targeting kids starting next year. On Wednesday, Facebook's Instagram announced that new users will have to provide a birthdate to help prove they are at least 13.

In a statement, Facebook said: "We don't allow anyone under 13 to use Facebook and Instagram and prohibit advertisers from using our services to target children under 13. We also have several measures in place to remove them from the platform and to prevent them from signing up in the first place."

Still, it remains unclear when the FTC might update its regulations. The agency has received more than 160,000 comments so far, including thousands from content creators who are worried that changes to the rules could wind up discouraging them from making kid-friendly videos.

In its letter, the consumer coalition argues that the FTC needs more data from the tech companies themselves before moving forward.

"The FTC cannot base substantive policy decisions on the current dearth of details about how the information ecosystem functions," the letter states. "Rather, the FTC must conduct and complete a series of long-overdue studies to shed light on these opaque industries before it adopts any privacy-related rulemaking or major policy change."

VIDEO2:1402:14
YouTube creators fight changes to children's privacy rules in Washington