YouTube is scrambling to make changes to its platform amid a Federal Trade Commission probe into the Google-owned video-streaming giant, aiming to address complaints that it exploited kids’ data, exposed them to inappropriate content, and has been used to spread hate and conspiracy theories. According to the Washington Post , the FTC is in the “late stages” of an investigation into the company, primarily focused on its children’s content, which makes up a sizable chunk of its programming. Four people familiar with the investigation told the Post that parents and consumer groups claim YouTube violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 in collecting kids’ data and exposing children to inappropriate and adult content. According to the New York Times , the FTC is also probing complaints that the platform allowed the spread of misinformation and other harmful content.
With potentially hefty fines looming, the company is looking to make dramatic changes . According to the Wall Street Journal , YouTube is considering moving all its children’s content to YouTube Kids, a sparsely-used stand-alone app. That platform doesn’t collect user data, and would separate adult and youth content, solving two of the issues outlined in the FTC complaints, but could be dicey for the company, as kids’ content represents a major percentage of its ad revenue. Additionally, YouTube is reportedly mulling disabling its automatic play feature on its youth-oriented content amid complaints that it has subjected kids and their parents to inappropriate videos. The company emphasized Wednesday that it was not committing to anything yet, telling the Journal through a spokesperson that “we consider lots of ideas for improving YouTube. Some remain just that—ideas,” the spokesperson said.
But the company has reportedly put the wheels in motion on a measure to address the hateful and conspiratorial content that has found a home on its platform. Per the Journal, YouTube “in recent months previewed adjustments to its rules around which videos to allow and to promote.” The tweaks “are designed to choke viewership” for certain videos by making it less likely that users will stumble upon them. Those changes have reportedly come along with a new, Susan Wojcicki -endorsed company mantra: “It’s not about free speech. It’s about free reach.”
YouTube’s struggle with content moderation has been long and painful. Back in December 2017, after inappropriate videos reportedly slipped through its parental filter onto YouTube Kids, the company announced plans to increase its moderation team by 10,000 people , or 25 percent. “Our goal is to stay one step ahead of bad actors, making it harder for policy-violating content to surface or remain on YouTube,” Wojcicki wrote in a post at the time, indicating that the company would also train its machine-learning software to spot videos that violated its rules. Now, it seems that plan has progressed.
YouTube’s current initiative—addressing harmful content not by removing it, but by using algorithms to bury it—could potentially be an attractive solution for other social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, which have also come under heavy scrutiny over their handling of abusive and harmful material. In spite of its theoretical fixes, YouTube is likely to remain in the spotlight. “An F.T.C. investigation into YouTube’s treatment of children online is long overdue,” Senator Ed Markey said in a statement after the Post reported on the probe. “It is no secret that kids flock to YouTube every day, but the company has yet to take the necessary steps to protect its youngest users.”
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