The U.S. government is in the late stages of an investigation into YouTube for allegedly violating children’s privacy, according to four people familiar with the matter, a probe that threatens the company with a potential fine and already has prompted the tech giant to reevaluate some of its business practices.
The investigation, which could result in fines against YouTube, comes after complaints by parents and consumer groups that the video giant had collected data of young users.
The groups also complained that YouTube allowed harmful and adult content to appear in searches for children’s content, said the two people, who were not authorized to speak about the investigation because it was private. In addition, misinformation and inappropriate content appeared in YouTube’s recommendation engines, according to the complaints.
Some of the problems highlighted by the YouTube investigation are shared by many of the most popular online services, including social media sites, such as Instagram and Snapchat, and games such as Fortnite, according to consumer advocates. The companies say that their services are intended for adults and that they take action when they find users who are underage. But they still remain widely popular with children, especially preteens, according to surveys and other data, raising concerns that the companies’ efforts – and federal law – have not kept pace with the rapidly evolving online world.
The F.T.C. has put more focus on child privacy. In February, the consumer protection agency fined the music video-sharing app Music.ly, now known as TikTok, a record $5.7 million for violating child privacy laws. The F.T.C. said in its settlement that TikTok allowed children under the age of 13 to use the site with little enforcement of its minimum-age requirement.
“YouTube is a really high-profile target, and for obvious reasons, because all of our kids are on it,” said Marc Groman, a privacy lawyer who previously worked for the FTC and the White House. “But the issues on YouTube that we’re all grappling with are elsewhere and everywhere.”
Dealing with children’s videos is particularly thorny for YouTube. Children are among the most avid users of YouTube, and videos geared toward them are popular on the platform. However, YouTube has struggled to keep inappropriate content away from children’s videos, in part because of the volume of videos being uploaded to the platform.
In February, YouTube was rocked by a video documenting how pedophiles used the comments on videos of children to guide other predators. After brands announced plans to boycott YouTube, the company said it would disable comments on most videos featuring children under 13 years old.
Since its founding in 2005 – and especially after its purchase by Google for $1.65 billion the following year – YouTube has joined the internet’s most popular sites, generating massive advertising revenue while becoming an online video library for almost anyone with an online connection, almost anywhere in the world. That includes those offering do-it-yourself tips, original shows, music performances and, on the darker side, far-fetched conspiracies, disinformation and clips troublingly close to child pornography. YouTube’s users upload 400 hours of new content to the platform each minute, the company has said.
A Pew Research Center poll last year found that even among kids 11 or younger, 81% had watched YouTube at least once and 34% did so regularly, according to their parents.