U.S. Senator Bill Nelson sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page on Tuesday asking the company to detail how it selects content for the YouTube Kids application, and what steps Google is taking to ensure children are not being exposed to unsuitable content. The letter comes a couple of months after a number of consumer advocacy groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission FTC regarding the way the app mixes ads and entertainment, as well as a more serious charge filed in May.
I’ve done a lot of research and monitoring of YouTube over the past few months and have discovered some peculiar things. Since YouTube is part of the universal Google account system this article will drift back in forth. It’s not 100% Google and not 100% YouTube. This article explains how to report a child for having an unauthorized YouTube channel and when it’s good to do so and when it’s better to just move along.
Google is perfectly OK in doing this because they use a neutral age-gate under COPPA. To be neutral they can’t come right out and say why they are asking. That would actually be a problem under the rules. Sites like Twitter don’t use an age gate and therefore it is easier for them to disclose the rule which is actually the law.
Instead of telling you at sign-up what the policy is, YouTube provides the following information on a parental resource page:
How old does my child have to be to use YouTube?
In order to create a YouTube account, we require users to confirm that they are at least 13 yrs old. Users who enter any age younger than 13 will be prohibited from creating YouTube accounts. In addition, if a user’s video gets flagged and, upon review, we determine that the user has inaccurately stated their age during the account creation process, we will suspend their account.
Unfortunately this policy is not linked from the TOS or privacy pages and is very hard to find. The easiest way to find it is actually to use Google Search otherwise you’re likely to get lost in their help system trying to find the answer. I’ve complained about this before because in my articles. If a parent were to review the documents presented to them when creating an account for their child they wouldn’t be wrong to think the age policy isn’t presented at signup.
But things get even quirkier Though Google forbids access to children under 13 there is no official way to turn someone in. Often you will hear kids threatened to be flagged for being too young but there’s no documented way to do that. Google does say that if a video is flagged and they determine the user lied then the account will be suspended (but not always terminated). This still leaves two issues. First, you can’t turn a kid in for age violation on non YouTube properties because the video flag system isn’t there. But you can’t turn them in through the video flag mechanism either because there isn’t a direct mechanism for age violations.
The problem with YouTube and COPPA is the Actual Knowledge standard. This dictates that a general audience site like YouTube isn’t held responsible for kids they don’t invite unless they have actual knowledge that they are under 13. About the only way to obtain actual knowledge on a particular video is for the child to state their age but you can’t report it unless you can report on an additional offense.
So no matter how much a child looks like they are 8 YouTube will not usually remove an account unless the video has both actual knowledge disclosure and another reportable violation. In other words two violations are needed.
These are the reportable issues for videos to be flagged:
- Sexual content
Flagged videos and users are reviewed by YouTube staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate Community Guideline. Accounts are penalized for Community Guidelines violations and serious or repeated violations can lead to account termination. If you would like to report a channel, please click here.
As you can see “age” is not a listed issue. If you report child abuse or flag the channel instead of the video but if there is no appropriate sub-category you risk being ignored at best or deleted for abusing the reporting system.
In my opinion age isn’t here because YouTube doesn’t want it to be here. They are avoiding deploying resources to support actual knowledge. Don’t ask don’t tell internet style.
One caveat though is fetish videos. YouTube does not allow this for kids of any age even if older than 13. Usually when a kid makes a fetish video they have no idea it is for the gratification of an adult or any idea what a fetish is. iCarly opened a lot of kids up to this through dares which usually feature feet or even uvulas. Search on YouTube for “iCarly foot dares” but this isn’t SFW. If you see a kid make a fetish video (hogtie is also a popular dare) flag it under Sexual Content and then sub flag it under involving minors. Put in the comments that it is fetish and not explicit so they don’t launch a nuclear response.
The video I reported under the terms of the last paragraph was of an 8 year old boy doing a request for who he thought was a teen girl. The title even mentioned “iCarly”. YouTube deleted the video within 5 minutes of the report which is very commendable. However, I also asked them to look at other videos on the channel to evaluate the account but they didn’t remove it even though he admits age he did so in a different video than the one I flagged. The fetish video is gone but the account remains and now the kid is setting up Skype “interviews” with strangers.
The title of this article though is how to rat out a child under COPPA on YouTube so there must be a way and there is.There just isn’t official and it probably won’t stick in the long term because the kid will just make a new account. I only flag an account if I feel the kid is doing something so dangerous that could risk real world safety. If they are careful with PII and aren’t making videos for perverts then I’m not going to troll for them. If they give out their address or constantly upload Skype chats with adults then I will pull the trigger to at least get current content removed. Let them start over and maybe they’ll be smarter. I am not fooling myself by thinking an 8 year old is going to take a 5 year break from YouTube.
I very much encourage anyone to follow these steps under the circumstances I describe above. And by all means keep flagging videos that break rules. A removed video earns the kid a strike and after 3 strikes the account is gone.
- The URL that leads to the child self disclosing their age. This can be to a video (make a note of the timestamp), their About page, or a comment on a video. The URL needs to be onsite. YouTube is not under obligation to hunt down info on other sites.
- Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Understand that they might not like this address being used for this purpose but it has worked. You might want to create a new e-mail account for this purpose in case they become irritated by you using it.
- Make sure to include the channel name.
- I recommend quoting the law a bit in case the support person is new and trained to respond with this:
In order to review legal claims, we must be notified directly by the party in question or their authorized legal representative. If you are authorized to act on the party’s behalf, please respond to this email specifying your relationship to the party in question.”
This alleges that a third party complaint cannot be made but that isn’t the case. I recommend pointing out in advance that the COPPA rules changed in July and that third parties can trigger actual knowledge. Feel free to use this:
This is a notification under the actual knowledge standard of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rules issued pursuant to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA” or “COPPA statute”), 15 U.S.C. 6501 et seq. as amended July 1, 2013. Furthermore, the FTC has made this statement regarding third party complaints:
‘Whether an operator has actual knowledge they have collected personal information from a child is fact specific, but it is not the case that they can only get that actual knowledge from a parent. There are cases where operators may learn they have collected personal information from children from a school or teacher or other third party.’ Source: FTC Office of Public Affairs 202-326-2480.
When sending e-mail avoid using anything but plain text. Anything with links, HTML or other formatting may trigger a rejection by their e-mail system upon receipt.Everything in this article has been tested several times and the results are consistent. My purpose here is to show what can be done and to point out the quirks in the system. In most cases it isn’t worth it unless something seriously is wrong and there’s no better way. Flagging a video is good to get rid of naughty content quickly so use it when available.
Using the above e-mail should only be done in urgent cases where a child might be giving out too much PII to be a danger to themselves offline. The child is likely to recreate their account so trying to be a vigilante is fruitless and e-mailing a legal department with the above wording is a bit dramatic so use it as a tool and do so wisely.
Special thanks to @Rob at ThirdParent for providing great how to articles including YouTube Will Shut Down Accounts If Users Are Under 13 which is based on earlier research leading up to this article.