What’s the Harm of Targeted Ads on Children’s Content Anyway?

Ben Sperry —  12 September 2019

The FTC’s recent YouTube settlement and $170 million fine related to charges that YouTube violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) has the issue of targeted advertising back in the news. With an upcoming FTC workshop and COPPA Rule Review looming, it’s worth looking at this case in more detail and reconsidering COPPA’s 2013 amendment to the definition of personal information.

According to the complaint issued by the FTC and the New York Attorney General, YouTube violated COPPA by collecting personal information of children on its platform without obtaining parental consent. While the headlines scream that this is an egregious violation of privacy and parental rights, a closer look suggests that there is actually very little about the case that normal people would find to be all that troubling. Instead, it appears to be another in the current spate of elitist technopanics.

COPPA defines personal information to include persistent identifiers, like cookies, used for targeted advertising. These cookies allow site operators to have some idea of what kinds of websites a user may have visited previously. Having knowledge of users’ browsing history allows companies to advertise more effectively than is possible with contextual advertisements, which guess at users’ interests based upon the type of content being viewed at the time. The age old problem for advertisers is that “half the money spent on advertising is wasted; the trouble is they don’t know which half.” While this isn’t completely solved by the use of targeted advertising based on web browsing and search history, the fact that such advertising is more lucrative compared to contextual advertisements suggests that it works better for companies.

COPPA, since the 2013 update, states that persistent identifiers are personal information by themselves, even if not linked to any other information that could be used to actually identify children (i.e., anyone under 13 years old). 

As a consequence of this rule, YouTube doesn’t allow children under 13 to create an account. Instead, YouTube created a separate mobile application called YouTube Kids with curated content targeted at younger users. That application serves only contextual advertisements that do not rely on cookies or other persistent identifiers, but the content available on YouTube Kids also remains available on YouTube. 

YouTube’s error, in the eyes of the FTC, was that the site left it to channel owners on YouTube’s general audience site to determine whether to monetize their content through targeted advertising or to opt out and use only contextual advertisements. Turns out, many of those channels — including channels identified by the FTC as “directed to children” — made the more lucrative choice by choosing to have targeted advertisements on their channels. 

Whether YouTube’s practices violate the letter of COPPA or not, a more fundamental question remains unanswered: What is the harm, exactly?

COPPA takes for granted that it is harmful for kids to receive targeted advertisements, even where, as here, the targeting is based not on any knowledge about the users as individuals, but upon the browsing and search history of the device they happen to be on. But children under 13 are extremely unlikely to have purchased the devices they use, to pay for the access to the Internet to use the devices, or to have any disposable income or means of paying for goods and services online. Which makes one wonder: To whom are these advertisements served to children actually targeted? The answer is obvious to everyone but the FTC and those who support the COPPA Rule: the children’s parents.

Television programs aimed at children have long been supported by contextual advertisements for cereal and toys. Tony the Tiger and Lucky the Leprechaun were staples of Saturday morning cartoons when I was growing up, along with all kinds of Hot Wheels commercials. As I soon discovered as a kid, I had the ability to ask my parents to buy these things, but ultimately no ability to buy them on my own. In other words: Parental oversight is essentially built-in to any type of advertisement children see, in the sense that few children can realistically make their own purchases or even view those advertisements without their parents giving them a device and internet access to do so.

When broken down like this, it is much harder to see the harm. It’s one thing to create regulatory schemes to prevent stalkers, creepers, and perverts from using online information to interact with children. It’s quite another to greatly reduce the ability of children’s content to generate revenue by use of relatively anonymous persistent identifiers like cookies — and thus, almost certainly, to greatly reduce the amount of content actually made for and offered to children.

On the one hand, COPPA thus disregards the possibility that controls that take advantage of parental oversight may be the most cost-effective form of protection in such circumstances. As Geoffrey Manne noted regarding the FTC’s analogous complaint against Amazon under the FTC Act, which ignored the possibility that Amazon’s in-app purchasing scheme was tailored to take advantage of parental oversight in order to avoid imposing excessive and needless costs:

[For the FTC], the imagined mechanism of “affirmatively seeking a customer’s authorized consent to a charge” is all benefit and no cost. Whatever design decisions may have informed the way Amazon decided to seek consent are either irrelevant, or else the user-experience benefits they confer are negligible….

Amazon is not abdicating its obligation to act fairly under the FTC Act and to ensure that users are protected from unauthorized charges. It’s just doing so in ways that also take account of the costs such protections may impose — particularly, in this case, on the majority of Amazon customers who didn’t and wouldn’t suffer such unauthorized charges….

At the same time, enforcement of COPPA against targeted advertising on kids’ content will have perverse and self-defeating consequences. As Berin Szoka notes:

This settlement will cut advertising revenue for creators of child-directed content by more than half. This will give content creators a perverse incentive to mislabel their content. COPPA was supposed to empower parents, but the FTC’s new approach actually makes life harder for parents and cripples functionality even when they want it. In short, artists, content creators, and parents will all lose, and it is not at all clear that this will do anything to meaningfully protect children.

This war against targeted advertising aimed at children has a cost. While many cheer the fine levied against YouTube (or think it wasn’t high enough) and the promised changes to its platform (though the dissenting Commissioners didn’t think those went far enough, either), the actual result will be less content — and especially less free content — available to children. 

Far from being a win for parents and children, the shift in oversight responsibility from parents to the FTC will likely lead to less-effective oversight, more difficult user interfaces, less children’s programming, and higher costs for everyone — all without obviously mitigating any harm in the first place.