Consumer Groups to Ask F.T.C. to Investigate YouTube Kids App

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Several consumer groups are expected to file a complaint on Tuesday that asks the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google’s recently released YouTube Kids application, a portal for cartoons and learning shows, arguing that the app mixes ads and programming in ways that are deceptive to children.

The complaint is being prepared by close to a dozen consumer groups, including the Center for Digital Democracy, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Consumer Watchdog. It argues, in essence, that YouTube is using advertising tactics like “host selling” – having cartoon characters sell products inside their show – that would be illegal if they were on television instead of online.

“They are mixing entertainment and advertising in ways that have already been ruled unfair and deceptive to children,” said Dale Kunkel, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona, who is assisting groups on the complaint. “It is just that the precedent is in television, not digital media.”

On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for YouTube said: “We worked with numerous partners and child advocacy groups when developing YouTube Kids. While we are always open to feedback on ways to improve the app, we were not contacted directly by the signers of this letter and strongly disagree with their contentions, including the suggestion that no free, ad-supported experience for kids will ever be acceptable. We disagree and think that great content shouldn’t be reserved for only those families who can afford it.”

The Institute for Public Representation, a legal clinic and public-interest law firm that sits within Georgetown Law, is representing the consumer groups in their complaint to the F.T.C.

In addition to blurring the lines between ads and content, the complaint is expected to argue that the app’s user-generated video segments endorse toys and candy, but have “undisclosed relationships with product manufacturers in violation of the F.T.C.’s guidelines concerning the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising,” according to a draft of the complaint that was provided by the consumer groups.

“In marketing the app to parents, Google claims that all ads are pre-approved by YouTube’s policy team to ensure compliance with the app’s rigorous advertising policy, when, in fact, much of the content available on the app violates its own policies,” the draft says.

YouTube released in February its YouTube Kids app, which can be downloaded for free through Google’s Play Store for Android devices or the App Store for Apple devices. It includes programs such as “Thomas the Tank Engine,” “Mother Goose Club” and “Reading Rainbow,” and has several parental controls, like a timer that measures how long kids have been using the app.

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