The UK has accused YouTube of gathering data from children in the country

An official complaint has been filed by campaigner Duncan McCann with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), accusing YouTube of violating a UK data privacy code created to safeguard children by collecting the viewing data of those aged under 13.

McCann claims that the platform is gathering information on the videos children watch, the location and device used to watch them. In response, YouTube stated that it had made efforts to safeguard families by treating all children’s content as if it was being viewed by children, even on adult accounts.

“We remain committed to continuing our engagement with the ICO on this priority work, and with other key stakeholders including children, parents and child-protection experts,” a spokesperson said.

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, owns YouTube. The company has repeatedly stated that its platform is not intended for children under the age of 13. It has also launched a separate app for children, YouTube Kids, and a “supervised experience” that requires parental consent.

However, campaigner Duncan McCann has filed an official complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), alleging that YouTube has been collecting viewing data of children under 13. McCann argues that many children watch YouTube content on family devices, which do not have children’s accounts and therefore allow data to be collected by default.

This complaint is expected to be the first test of the ICO children’s code, which was introduced in 2020, giving tech companies one year to comply with the code. YouTube has stated that it has invested in measures to protect families and children’s privacy on its platform.

The UK’s data privacy code for children requires a high level of default privacy and prohibits design features that incentivize children to share more information.

YouTube, owned by US tech company Alphabet, has been accused of violating this code by collecting viewing data from children under 13.

The complaint was filed by activist Duncan McCann to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), and is believed to be the first test of the children’s code, which was introduced in 2020.

YouTube has a separate children’s app, YouTube Kids, and a “supervised experience” that requires parental consent.

Despite this, Mr. McCann argues that children often watch content on family devices, where data collection can happen by default.

According to regulator Ofcom, 89% of UK children between three and 17 used the platform in 2021. The ICO, which can levy significant fines for breaches of the code, said it would review the complaint. Mr. McCann, who works for the 5Rights Foundation, is bringing the case in a personal capacity but with the support of the campaign group.

“My preferred reform that YouTube should make is that actually when you enter YouTube, they don’t collect any unnecessary and process any unnecessary information,” he said.

“The best way to ensure that they are only collecting the data of adults who are properly consenting would be to have a process where adults can sign in to the tracking, recommendation systems, profiling, targeted ads.

Stephanie Hare, the author of Technology is Not Neutral, said that she believed only a small number of users would opt to create accounts for children on the platform.

In 2019, YouTube was fined $170m (£139m) by a US regulator for violating children’s privacy laws. The site had been accused of collecting data on children under 13 without parental consent.

While YouTube did not admit responsibility for the violation, it did pay the fine and modify its business practices as a result, according to Hare.

“It assumed that anyone watching children’s content would be potentially under the age of 13. And so it now collects far less data on that type of content, and also doesn’t send personalised ads to people watching that content,” she said.

“The solution exists, they just need to pull it out of the toolbox.”