PLEASE NOTE: This blog entry is NOT meant for legal advice! Please consult a lawyer for legal advice.
COPPA is a law, not a program.
What is COPPA?
COPPA is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998. It is designed to protect children’s personal information from being used on the Internet without parental consent, effectively giving parents control over that information.
In 2006, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reviewed the law and decided not to update it. However, they decided to review the law again a few years later simply because the online environment had changed.
In 2013, an amendment known as the COPPA Rule or the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule was passed. This rule changed a large number of things, including expanding definition, clarifying them, and adding additional rules.
Why am I talking about this?
The FTC and the State of New York sued YouTube and Google for illegally collecting personal information of people under the age of 13. This resulted in a settlement between FTC, NY, and Google/YouTube. YouTube paid a whopping $170 MILLION in the settlement. You can read more about it in the stipulated order.
A part of the settlement involves YouTube requiring all users on the website who upload videos to mark whether or not their videos are child-directed or not. This alone is not troubling.
It’s everything else that is.
What is everything else?
- If a channel marks individual videos as made-for-kids, they lose many features including: behavioral ads, comments, info cards (links to other places, including other videos), and endscreen end screens (the end screen in videos linking to other videos);
- If WHOLE channels mark themselves as made-for-kids, they lose additional features including: the notification bell (sends a push notification or an e-mail letting you know someone you subscribe to on YouTube has uploaded a new video or is presently live streaming), the community tab (where you can post messages and interact with your subscribers), stories (think Instagram and Snapchat), and the viewer ability to save to watch later or to save to playlist;
- Per the FTC, YouTube Content Creators (i.e. the people uploading videos to the website) are fully responsible to comply with COPPA, including obtaining permission from parents;
- YouTube updated their terms-of-service in relation to the order, which includes kicking people completely off Google products for non-compliance, as well as making the individual content creators strictly liable;
So, why am I talking about this again?
I’m talking about this because it affects everyone who creates content on the Internet. Something a lot of people don’t seem to understand if you create content and the FTC determines that your content is directed at children or that majourity of your audience is children, you can be sued.
I watch one toy review channel on YouTube called Mommy’s World. It has been my window into the kid-directed and family-friendly content side of YouTube. I began hearing about the effects of COPPA on kid-directed and family-friendly channels through her. It was enough to make me feel bad for them, but I kind of just shrugged it off for the most part. It didn’t affect me, but man, turning off comments and personalized ads? Oh boy, that sucks!
Let me tell you, I did not understand the implications not just for the kid-targeted and family channels on the platform, but nearly everyone who makes content there. It wasn’t until a signal boost video by Mommy’s World entitled “You Tubers LISTEN UP! Your Adsense Could Go Away Too if COPPA law is changed!”. That particular video was a BIG wake-up call for me.
I realized while I personally did not (and still do not) feel affected by COPPA because the content I post is very general audience, but not very kid attractive (I honestly highly doubt a kid is going to sit through a 25 minute video of me rambling about the past year that is nothing but me sitting at my computer desk with maybe the occasional small picture popping up on the screen so I can be like “HEY GUYS, I WORKED ON STUFF, SEE?!”), I was heavily concerned about someone else: my husband.
My husband is Hurricane500000 (Hurricane five-hundred thousand). He’s a small YouTube channel nearing 3,600 subscribers at the time of writing this. He’s a Video Game YouTuber who does Let’s Plays (he records himself playing video games and commentates on them). On a rare occasion, he posts rather straight-forward commentary on his videos. Most of the time, however, he utilizes his character voice talent.
The series’ of his I am most concerned about are his Let’s Adventure/Let’s Abridged Let’s Plays. They combine his vocal talents, his commentary, and sometimes even his animation and music skills to help bring the games to a whole new level.
According to the FTC, the following criteria are used to determine if your content is directed towards children:
• the subject matter,
• visual content,
• the use of animated characters or child-oriented activities and incentives,
• the kind of music or other audio content,
• the age of models,
• the presence of child celebrities or celebrities who appeal to children,
• language or other characteristics of the site,
• whether advertising that promotes or appears on the site is directed to children, and
• competent and reliable empirical evidence about the age of the audience.https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/blogs/business-blog/2019/11/youtube-channel-owners-your-content-directed-children
When I read that, I definitely became concerned for my husband’s channel, or more specifically, certain videos. The ones that come to mind are actually his most recent ones: Luigi’s Mansion 3 Part 1 and Part 2. They utilize all of those skills and to me, met that criteria. If I was the FTC, would I look at his videos and think they were kid-directed? Yes, even though I know that was absolutely not the intention. He’s creating for his viewers and trying to stay fairly PG. His viewership, as far as we can tell, are older teenager and adults.
As I learned more about COPPA though, I became greatly concerned not just about my husband and myself (in the future), but the way this is going to heavily impact the form as a whole.
How is this going to impact YouTube?
As I mentioned earlier, A LOT of community building features are being turned off: comments, playlists, info cards, community tabs, end screens, and more. I also mentioned behavioral ads.
A lot of the impact on YouTube, specifically content creators who make money off the platform is the loss of behavioral ads. Behavioral ads (otherwise known as “personalized ads”) use something called “persistent identifiers” to track users across websites to create things like targeted ads. Under COPPA Rule (the 2013 update), you cannot track persistent identifiers under most circumstances. This means you can’t do behavioral advertising…which brings in a heck of a lot of revenue.
The loss of revenue due to YouTube switching from behavioral ads to contextual ads (which rely on looking at the website page the user is on and determine what ads to play) can be between 60 to 90%. That means if you were making $1,000 a month off YouTube and your channel has child-directed content, you would be making only $400 a month at best and $100 a month at worse. As you can imagine, people who rely on YouTube advertising as their primary source of income and make content that is kid-directed are at risk of potentially having to lay off some people, change their business model, or, worst case scenario: shut down their business.
Where can I get more information about what’s going on?
The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) provides several sources regarding COPPA, COPPA Rule, and everything else going on. If you are to check out any source first, I recommend starting with these:
YouTube channel owners: Is your content directed to children?
Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule: A Six-Step Compliance Plan for Your Business
Google LLC and YouTube, LLC
Title 15 / Chapter 91 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998
Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule
J House Law on YouTube is a lawyer who is meeting with both YouTube and the FTC to gain a wider understanding of the situation, the changes that are coming, and what we can do to help. I would recommend the following videos from him or featuring him:
COPPA: everything you need to know!
What the FTC Commissioners Told My Attorney about COPPA (Derral Eves video)
Meeting with FTC in DC
KreekCraft, a gaming YouTuber, who is going to Washington D.C. on December 10th to speak to two of the commissioners:
This Is How COPPA Will Destroy YouTubers… (It’s Really Bad) | FTC YouTube COPPA Update
Are Your Videos FOR KIDS? – How To Know! (According to the FTC) | YouTube FTC COPPA Update
THE FTC RESPONDED!!! – I’m Going To Washington DC To Save YouTube | YouTube COPPA Update
The FTC CALLED ME about COPPA… (GOOD NEWS!) | YouTube FTC COPPA Update
MatPat from the Game Theorist posted up a great video on COPPA as well:
Game Theory: Will Your Favorite Channel Survive 2020? (COPPA)
What can I do to help?
The simplest thing to do would be to sign the petition created by J House Law: https://www.change.org/p/youtubers-and-viewers-unite-against-ftc-regulation
Additionally, you can leave a comment on the Regulations.gov website. You can read the proposed changes at: https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=FTC-2019-0054-0001. You can make a direct comment using the form: https://www.regulations.gov/comment?D=FTC-2019-0054-0001.
Regardless if you’re 100% for the updated regulations or 100% opposed or somewhere in-between, I think you should make a comment. They need all the feedback they can get!
What is your opinion, Kelly?
As I dove deeper into COPPA, I definitely believe that the regulations need to be rolled back to the original 1998 law, completely cancelling out the 2013 Rule, which is much too detailed. It creates too much confusion and red tape that doesn’t do anything to help parents control their child’s personal information online. The entire point is to let parents know their kids are using the platform and the website owner needs permission from parents.
The most I believe the next ruling should contain is listing detailed geo-location under personal information, as it could be used as a replacement for inputting an address, keeping screen names/usernames used in place of other means of online contact, and the internal operations. I’m still greatly in debate about behavioral tracking, simply because it does involve companies creating “profiles” for individuals to track their activities everywhere. I am not sure if there is a way to balance this: for instance, if it’s a child-directed site, don’t track the site, track keywords. Or something. I’m not sure.
I believe too that the FTC needs to make clear the responsibilities of users on a user-generated content website like YouTube. According to the press conference, we are being treated as operators, as if individual channels were a website. Based off the conversation Kreekcraft had recently with the FTC, they don’t seem to understand we don’t have access to a whole lot of detailed information. We are shown summaries of our data, rather than individual profiles. The only access that would perhaps fall under COPPA is being able to see the usernames of others and we may be able to contact people via a public space. Maybe. (Not to mention, we don’t have the ability to see everyone either!)
I also feel that IMPLICIT permission and EXPLICIT permission need to be acknowledged. Often times, the parents know their kids are on the Internet and are monitoring them. The kids are getting permission from their parents. However, the operators of a website may never actually see that permission. (I am curious too how often parents actually know to give permission to websites to collect information or not. If anything, I think websites should have types of parental controls that can turn the stuff off/on, but that’s just me. I feel though that falls out of COPPA’s scope and could actually apply to a wider audience.)
There also needs to be tools developed to assist small businesses, especially ones that have a single person running them at that particular moment. None of the ways COPPA lists to obtain permission seems to take small businesses with as few as a single person into mind.
I’m kind of driven nuts that the FTC thinks that channel owners on YouTube should be responsible for obtaining parental permission when the channel owners don’t even have access to specific information. It’s not like a place like WordPress.com or Wix.com where you can create a website and it’s yours hosted on the platform. I think the best way to describe it is that places like WordPress.com and Wix.com are like neighborhoods and you have your own house in them, as opposed to YouTube where it’s a house and you just have your own room. Not to mention, MANY people upload to YouTube casually, not for large audiences. Obtaining permission from parents for specific personal information you don’t even have access to seems just stupid and an oversight on their part. The FTC has a YouTube channel. They need to check out their own analytics and make a decision from there.
Some of the updates with COPPA don’t necessarily have to do with YouTube, per se, but rather devices that allow you to speak to make a command. COPPA is considering updating this as well, but my only fears for placing restrictions on something like that is accessibility. I’m reminded of an article by Drew on FreeCodeCamp.org who talked about his daughter making him realize the importance of accessibility on the web as he watched her use her voice to search for things. This should not be something that is restricted, as it may end up causing accessibility issues.
I do believe the best thing for the FTC to do is gather experts of varying opinions all together and help to come up with something more balanced. Continue to protect children, put the power back into the hands of parents, and please, don’t destroy small businesses overnight. I also would really like them to come up with a list of tools, best of the best, that could aid website owners in complying with COPPA where it may be needed.
With all these updates to COPPA, I can’t help but wonder: has the Internet truly changed a lot or did it just simply receive a fresh coat of paint?