On the first day of October, YouTube introduced several changes to its YouTube Kids app, which it had initially launched in February 2015. Among other new features, YouTube announced its plan to instruct parents, as soon as they turn on the app, about the process for flagging inappropriate videos.
At the time, we hailed this as a positive change for YouTube Kids, but a Senator who previously questioned the app believes more needs to be done. Bill Nelson (D-FL) recently took the Senate floor to discuss YouTube Kids, and he called YouTube’s recent updates “steps in the right direction, but it’s not enough.”
Nelson and the children’s advocacy groups allied with him are primarily concerned with two issues related to YouTube Kids. One is the availability of branded videos on the app, which the advocacy groups believe are “deceptive and unfair.” YouTube’s new update didn’t address this point specifically, and this particular disagreement seems to stem from a difference of opinion regarding what constitutes an “advertisement.” While the advocacy groups consider, say, a branded toy review to be an advertisement, YouTube seems to label it differently.
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Shortly after the update was announced, one of the advocacy groups–the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood–wrote an open letter expressing dissatisfaction with the changes, saying “ Google’s changes to YTK are designed to allow Google to escape responsibility for allowing advertisers to use deceptive and unfair practices in marketing to the youngest children.”
CCFC’s open letter did not devote much ink, however, to the main issue Senator Nelson discussed when he took the floor. This second issue is one YouTube’s update did address, and it has emerged as a much more complicated conversation than the distinction between branded videos and ads. It’s an argument over the degree to which YouTube is responsible for purging inappropriate videos from its Kids app.
The CCFC and another advocacy group brought up the presence of adult-themed videos in May 2015, when they said YouTube had “failed” to provide age-appropriate content on YouTube Kids. Nelson echoed the concerns of the advocacy groups when he wrote a letter to Google one month later. At the time, YouTube reminded Nelson and co. that parents can always flag inappropriate videos they find on the app. Through the new update, YouTube made sure parents learn about this option as soon as they turn on the app.
For Nelson, though, that is not sufficient. On the Senate floor, he shared a number of inappropriate videos he found on the app, such as Howcast’s “How to open a beer with another beer.” He asserted that YouTube must take more responsibility when it comes to expunging these videos. “If there’s a privilege of doing an app like this, then there must be accountability,” he said. “And Google must accept that responsibility to be accountable.”
This YouTube Kids kerfuffle is essentially an extension of a problem that has dogged YouTube since its inception. With so much content uploaded every minute, it is impossible for YouTube to manually moderate its library. For that reason, it has created systems like Content ID and the YouTube Kids’ video reporting system, which can quickly recognize and strike down inappropriate or illegal videos. YouTube’s solution hasn’t been perfect, though. It has, at times, alienated media companies, content creators, and, yes, US Senators.
Those who agree with Nelson’s point of view must admit that, for YouTube to police its Kids app beyond its current system, it would have to completely curate the video selection and allow no unverified uploads. That might please Nelson, but it would go against YouTube’s appeal as a place where anyone, no matter how big or small, can be noticed. Perhaps legal action will force YouTube’s hand, but unless the debate gets to that point, don’t expect YouTube to give in to all the concessions Nelson is seeking.
For more information, head over to TechCrunch, where YouTube’s response to Nelson’s original letter has been posted in full.