FTC Issues Record-Setting Civil Fine Against Google For Mining Your Child’s Data

by: Kelly Callahan

On August 30, 2019, The New York Times reported on the Federal Trade Commission’s (“F.T.C.”) recent vote to issue a record-setting fine against Google. Google will potentially be on the hook to pay a fine anywhere between $150 million to $200 million to settle recent accusations against the global tech giant. What’s the fine for? Google is once again accused of data mining, this time it's mining your children’s data on YouTube.

This whopping potential fine of $200 million far surpasses the previous record-setting fine the F.T.C. recently issued against the popular music video app, TikTok. The New York Times reported the FTC issued the  $5.7 million to penalize the app’s child privacy violations.

Data mining is the modern way  “Big Tech” companies to generate revenue. Big Tech takes data, including users’ personal information and online habits, then turns that information into targeted advertisements. The idea is that these platforms learn what their users enjoy, then reinforce user engagement on the companies’ platforms by showing more content they know users are inclined to enjoy. Data mining on its face is not legally or ethically wrong when the people from whom Big Tech is mining data are consenting adults. However, Big Tech companies rarely take data from consenting adults.

The F.T.C. has specific regulations with which companies should comply regarding protecting children’s privacy online unless they want to face penalties. Think about rewriting this first sentence, maybe something along the lines of “Unless companies wish to be subject to massive penalties, they should follow the specific regulations outlined by the F.T.C.. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”) is a set of compliance regulations that apply to websites targeted to children as well as general user websites. COPPA was updated in 2013 to keep up with the latest technological advancements. The F.T.C. has a six-step guide  companies can use to identify whether they are governed? Subject to? COPPA, and how they can come into compliance. Specifically, these tech companies’ privacy policies should: list all operators that will collect users’ personal information, describe what personal information is being collected and how it will be used, and list a description of parental rights regarding their child’s access to the site. Based on these guidelines, it can be reasonably assumed that Google has not followed some or all of these privacy disclosure protocols, given the accusations that Google illegally mined children’s personal information on YouTube.

The F.T.C. is subject to regular criticism for not dropping the ball hard enough against Big Tech companies like Google, YouTube, and Facebook. It appears that the F.T.C. is using this record-setting fine against Google to send a message to other Big Tech companies that if they do not comply with its regulations, they too will be hit with almost a quarter-million dollars in fines. Given the long history of these Big Tech companies’ persistent illegal and unethical data mining practices, it necessarily raises the question of whether the F.T.C. is doing enough to protect the United States’ most vulnerable populations from having their personal information be siphoned off for profit. It also necessarily raises the question as to whether our current legal system is equipped to handle the legal and ethical challenges the ever-evolving technological landscape presents. The amount in fines Big Tech has been slapped with paying as punishment appears to be just a drop in the bucket and incomparable to the revenue they generate by mining and selling user’s data.

So, what is the solution? Is it up to the F.T.C. to safeguard children from invasive data mining, when the F.T.C. cannot seem to even protect the data mining of adults’ information? The solution may not come from formal legal efforts. Big Tech may be forced to change its practices only after reputational harm results from these F.T.C.-driven investigations. Parents may also have to be more alert of the tech platforms their children use and input their personal data. That solution, however, is also seemingly impracticable given the ever-increasing integration of technology into people’s daily lives. The solution to truly making tech platform user’s data safe from exploitative mining for profit seems far off and is going to take many cycles of trial and error punitive tactics. Until then, be wary of what personal information you and your children input online.