Google defends YouTube Kids to U.S. senator

Google is pushing to reboot its YouTube Kids app after its controversy-marred launch earlier this year, sending a letter to a U.S. senator who had raised concerns about its “unsuitable content” and introducing new parental controls.

More than three months after U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the top ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, sent a letter to Google (now Alphabet) CEO Larry Page seeking answers about how videos are chosen for the toddler-focused app, Google has responded in a letter obtained by Silicon Beat.

“Of course the content available by searching within the app is not curated by humans, and we do not pre-view the videos by hand,” wrote Susan Molinari, Google’s vice president of public policy and a former Republican congresswoman from New York. “We have developed user flags so that parents can let us know if they discover anything in YouTube Kids that they do not want their child to watch.”

Nelson’s concerns followed complaints filed to the Federal Trade Commission by consumer groups and child advocates angered by how much the app inundates toddlers with advertising and promotional content, as well as the app’s inability to filter out some grown-up videos with swear words, violence and other offensive content.

In her two-page letter to Nelson dated Sept. 22, Molinari said YouTube manually reviews flagged videos and removes them “within hours” if deemed inappropriate. She also defended the paid advertising on YouTube Kids, detailing the internal policies that are distinct from what is allowed in the broader YouTube universe.

The letter arrived at Nelson’s office just days before YouTube announced in a blog post Thursday that it will be making some changes to the 7-month-old app.

“When parents open YouTube Kids, we’ll explain upfront how our systems choose and recommend content and how to flag videos,” wrote Shimrit Ben-Yair, the app’s product lead, in the blog post. “We’ll also prompt you to make a choice about how broadly you want your child to explore — turn search on to access millions of family-friendly videos, or turn search off to restrict your child’s experience to a more limited set.”

Those changes will roll out in a few weeks, she said, along with some new shows, playlists and the ability to now watch YouTube Kids on the big screen using Google’s Chromecast, Apple TV, game consoles or a smart TV.

But consumer groups that filed complaints with the FTC earlier this year were not satisfied by the changes. Their main contention since the app launched in February is that the way it inundates kids under 5 years old with advertising and promotional content — such as shows that are hawking products — goes against decades of psychological research and well-established children’s programming rules for broadcast television and cable providers. Giving parents the option to turn off the search bar that enables them or their kids to find videos doesn’t address that.

“Google’s recent changes to YouTube Kids have in no way addressed (our) concerns about excessive and deceptive commercial content available on YouTube Kids,” said Angela Campbell of Georgetown’s Institute for Public Representation, who is representing the Center for Digital Democracy and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in their FTC complaint. “Google not only did not consult with CCFC and CDD, but it refused their request to meet.”

She said the paid ads selected through Google’s kid-friendly safeguards represent only a fraction of all the content on YouTube Kids, which includes company-produced promotional videos, paid product placements and actual television commercials.

“Rather than responding to our concerns, Google’s changes to You Tube Kids are designed to allow Google to escape responsibility for allowing advertisers to use deceptive and unfair practices in marketing to the youngest children,” Campbell wrote in an email Friday.

Nelson has not yet responded to the Google letter, but the senator’s office said he will take a wait-and-see approach as Google’s new parental controls roll out.

Here is Molinari’s letter (click to make letters bigger):

MolinariLetter1

MolinariLetter2

Above: YouTube Kids is introducing some new parental controls. (Image courtesy of Google)

 

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