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Father files complaint against YouTube over alleged data gathering on children

It is said to be the first complaint against a major tech firm for allegedly breaching the ‘age-appropriate design code’.
It is said to be the first complaint against a major tech firm for allegedly breaching the ‘age-appropriate design code’. It is said to be the first complaint against a major tech firm for allegedly breaching the ‘age-appropriate design code’.

A father-of-three has filed a complaint against YouTube for allegedly gathering data on children’s viewing habits in breach of the Information Commissioner’s Office age-appropriate design code.

The complaint against the popular online video platform is made by data rights campaigner Duncan McCann as a private citizen.

His action is backed by his employer, the charity 5Rights, which said it is the first complaint against a major tech firm for allegedly breaching the “Children’s Code” or “age-appropriate design code”, which was introduced in September 2021.

The code sets out standards to which online services must adhere in order to comply with UK data protection law when it comes to children and protecting their personal information online.

The Information Commissioner’s Office said it will “consider this complaint carefully”, and Mr McCann said it has three months to inform him whether it will take the investigation on.

Information Commissioner’s Office website
Information Commissioner’s Office website The Information Commissioner’s Office is considering the complaint (Alamy/PA) (Alamy Stock Photo)

Mr McCann’s complaint alleges that, at a minimum, the location, viewing habits, and preferences of up to five million UK children are systematically recorded by the internet giant, breaking data protection laws and breaching industry standards designed to protect young people under the age of 13.

He said: “Imagine YouTube as an adult stranger following your child ‘online’ with a virtual clipboard recording everything they do. That is what is happening every day, and they are not just doing it with your child.

“They are doing it with up to five million other UK children as well, resulting in an enormous amount of personal information being gathered.”

He believes YouTube should change the design of its platform, adjust the algorithm that drives recommended videos and targets adverts, and delete the data it has gathered from children under 13.

The platform offers YouTube Kids, which it says is “family friendly” and uses automated filters and parental feedback to protect children.

But Mr McCann told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that YouTube is “trying to have their cake and eat it” as Ofcom figures show many children under 13 use the main platform to watch “loads and loads” of videos.

5Rights says its work aims to ensure children’s needs and rights are not ignored in digital design so the same freedoms, protections and privileges that young people are entitled to offline also apply online.

Baroness Kidron, the founder of 5Rights, said: “We are supporting Mr McCann’s effort to ensure compliance with data law that protects children.

“It is well established that data privacy regimes are central to the safety of children online.

“Data law is not a pick and mix of what elements companies want to adhere to, it is a holistic approach that requires companies to offer children the highest degree of data privacy and in doing so lessen their exposure to harmful experiences and exploitation online.”

Stephen Bonner, ICO deputy commissioner, said: “The Children’s Code makes clear that children are not like adults online, and their data needs meaningful protections. We’ll consider this complaint carefully.

“Parents expect their children to be protected online, and as a regulator we expect children’s data to be protected online. If that’s not the case, we’ll take action.

“We’ve seen improvements in how children are treated online as a result of our work around the Children’s Code, including fewer targeted adverts and new parental supervision tools.”

A YouTube spokesman said: “Over the years, we’ve made investments to protect kids and families, such as launching a dedicated kids app, introducing new data practices for children’s content, and providing more age-appropriate experiences.

“Building on that long-standing approach and following the additional guidance provided by the code, we implemented further measures to bolster children’s privacy on YouTube, such as more protective default settings and a dedicated YouTube Supervised Experience.

“We remain committed to continuing our engagement with the ICO on this priority work, and with other key stakeholders including children, parents and child protection experts.”