Launched in late February, YouTube Kids, which is available for iOS and Android smartphones and tablets, is designed to let children watch "family friendly" content on mobile devices.
“[YouTube Kids is] the first Google product built from the ground up with the little ones in mind,” Shimrit Ben-Yair, YouTube Kids group product manager, said at the time of the app's release. “The app makes it safer and easier for children to find videos on topics they want to explore.
”YouTube Kids limits its content to curated, age-appropriate videos, channels and educational content, including Thomas the Tank Engine, Reading Rainbow, and National Geographic Kids. But Consumerist reports it's not the app's programming content that is causing controversy.
In a letter sent to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), consumer advocacy groups, including the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, and Public Citizen, are accusing Google, which owns YouTube, of violating Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair and deceptive marketing practices.
The letter lists three different types of "deceptive or unfair marketing":
• The videos provided to children on YouTube Kids intermix commercial and other content in ways that are deceptive and unfair to children and would not be permitted to be shown on broadcast or cable television.
• Many of the video segments endorsing toys, candy and other products that appear to be “user-generated” have undisclosed relationships with product manufacturers in violation of the FTC’s guidelines concerning the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising.
• 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.
"Therefore, we ask the FTC to take action to stop these and any other deceptive or unfair practices uncovered as a result of its investigation," the letter states.
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines for children's television programs require that “program material be separated from commercials by intervening and unrelated program material." Also, the use of “program talent or other identifiable program characteristics to deliver commercials” is prohibited just before, during or just after any program in which related characters appear.
According to Angela Campbell of the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown Law School, who serves as counsel to the coalition that authored the letter, YouTube Kids flouts long-established safeguards meant to protect children from being exposed to excessive TV advertising.
"There are no limits on the amount of advertising, there's no separation between advertising and programming," Campbell told USA Today.
Confusing matters even further, YouTube Kids features brand channels for companies including McDonald's, Barbie, Fisher Price and LEGO.
“Videos on these channels are mostly advertising even though they are not labeled as such,” the letter states, citing the LEGO channel's full-length shows starring LEGO characters, LEGO-themed 'webisodes' with the same characters videos of real kids playing with toys of those characters, followed by actual advertisements for the same products.
“There is no separation between the full episodes and the commercials,” the letter states. “Moreover, because the traditional TV-style commercials feature the exact same LEGO Friends characters that appear in episodes of the adjacent program content, the entire channel is akin to what the FCC would consider a program-length commercial.”
Part of the problem is that rules meant to police children's television content, which have been in place since the 1970s, are becoming less relevant in an age when television watching is decreasing and kids increasingly view content on smartphones and tablets. Regulations are lagging behind technological changes, creating legal gray areas yet to be adequately addressed.
"It doesn't make sense having rules covering one media and then having no rules in another medium," Jeff Chester of Democratic Media, one of the groups that signed the letter, told USA Today. "That's really where Google saw an opening to really cash in here to do things they couldn't do on television."
Google issued a statement saying it worked closely with its partners, as well as with child advocacy groups, during development of YouTube Kids.
"We disagree and think that great content shouldn't be reserved for only those families who can afford it," the Internet giant said.