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Foul-mouthed Bert and Ernie take center stage in YouTube’s app battle

The Guardian // 20th May 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Foul-mouthed Bert and Ernie take center stage in YouTube’s app battle” was written by Sam Thielman in New York, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 19th May 2015 10.00 UTC

A foul-mouthed Bert and Ernie are giving YouTube Kids an image problem. A video of the Sesame Street duo swearing is a key exhibit in a petition sent to US regulators on Tuesday calling for censure of the Google-owned app.

In an update to a recent complaint against YouTube filed with the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday, the watchdog groups catalogued all the gross things kids can find using the app’s search function.

Among the available clips: beer ads, graphic talks on sex, and video of the Bert and Ernie delivering the profanity-laced dialogue from Martin Scorsese’s 1995 classic Casino.

The complainants include the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), and several others, some of whom contend that the solution to kid-unfriendly content (including advertising) popping up on kids’ apps is strict regulation of the kind that currently governs children’s TV.

“Google is operating in an unfair and deceptive way and we’ve documented this in a number of cases, so we expect the commission to require Google to change a number of its practices on the app,” said Jeff Chester, executive director for the CDD. “This is a digital deja vu – any time there’s a new market, the industry wants to push it because there are no rules. And there have to be some rules for children.”

Chester has been lobbying the FCC for years, including on rulings throughout the 1990s that limited commercial time on TV and made it illegal to collect young consumers’ data online. Advertising to kids on TV is a fraught business – even if you’re within the letter of all the laws, there are still public shaming campaigns by lobbying groups and savvy competitors when, for example, Nickelodeon advertises sugary cereals.

But YouTube Kids and other kid-targeted web products are almost totally unregulated, with the exception of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which governs data collection. The content of online material consumed by kids, and the amount of advertising, isn’t subject to any existing laws – which may partly explain why kids like it so much.

“What we’d like, frankly, is for the FTC to begin creating those safeguards,” said Chester. “We’d like to see the FTC standing up and saying you can’t have endless ads disguised as programs on YouTube Kids.” (The initial complaint cites YouTube Kids’ sponsored McDonald’s channel as an example of content that runs counter to YouTube’s own privacy policy.)

“We work to make the videos in YouTube Kids as family-friendly as possible and take feedback very seriously,” a Google spokeswoman said in a statement. “Anyone can flag a video and these videos are manually reviewed 24/7 and any videos that don’t belong in the app are removed. For parents who want a more restricted experience, we recommend that they turn off search.”

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