YouTube just came out to have a good time and it must be feeling very attacked right now. The video giant is running into even more trouble with its recently launched family-friendly portal, the YouTube Kids App. After two separate complaints were filed with the FTC about the app and its content, it looks like congress is taking an interest in YouTube’s latest project. Senator Bill Nelson has issued a letter to Google CEO Larry Page asking for an explanation of how YouTube selects content for the app. The letter is likely the opening shot in a senate inquiry into Google’s conduct surrounding the app.
Designed to provide parents with a way to let their kids safely access YouTube content, the Kids App has been in trouble almost since day one. It has already been the subject of two FTC complaints, one alleging that the app violates federal guidelines for advertising to children because it allows kids to watch the thousands of squeaky clean sponsored videos from top YouTube creators that are really just ads dressed up as user generated content. A second, more serious charge came months later when a different collection of advocates charged the app with allowing kids to access inappropriate or offensive material that hadn’t been flagged. One example of such offensive material is a clip of President of the United States appearing on a late night talk show in which he conversationally acknowledges the existence of marijuana.
It’s not exactly clear how YouTube curates content for the Kids App. While the video giant is likely making an effort to push some of its most prominent educational and kid friendly creators to the forefront of the app, the kids app also apparently relies on YouTube algorithms to determine what is and isn’t safe for kids. The app contains “browse” and “search” features whose only boundaries appear to be content that has been flagged as inappropriate or adult. Since those designations are controlled by users, it certainly seems possible for some less “kid friendly” content to slip through the cracks.
Nelson’s letter falls short of announcing a formal investigation into YouTube’s practices, but it’s certainly not great news for the already embattled app. Still, the inquiry is just the latest in a series of growing pains that are inevitable as YouTube continues its ascent as one of the worlds most used media platforms. As it expands its dominance into other areas YouTube will increasingly be forced to contend with rules and regulations designed for television. These rules have a purpose but they clearly never anticipated the age of massively viral user generated content.