Google Inc.’s YouTube Kids app violates safeguards for children by deceptively blending advertising and programming, according to consumer groups that are asking U.S. regulators to investigate the company.
The video service’s branded channels for Barbie, Lego, McDonald’s and other products mostly show ads, and user-generated content fails to disclose relationships between video producers and product manufacturers, the groups said in a statement Tuesday. They filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
“YouTube Kids exploits children’s developmental vulnerabilities by delivering a steady stream of advertising that masquerades as programming,” Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said in the statement.
Google consulted with child-advocacy and privacy groups in developing YouTube Kids, according to Niki Christoff, a spokeswoman for the Mountain View, California-based company.
“We were not contacted directly by the signers of this letter and strongly disagree with their contentions, including the suggestion that no free, ad-supported experience for kids will ever be acceptable,” she said in a statement. “We disagree and think that great content shouldn’t be reserved for only those families who can afford it.”
Peter Kaplan, a spokesman for the FTC, said the agency received the complaint and would review the groups’ claims.
Google rolled out YouTube Kids earlier this year in a move to expand its audience with videos including Sesame Street and Thomas & Friends.
The FTC has authority to crack down on unfair and deceptive practices that hurt consumers. Google ran afoul of the agency last year and agreed to pay $19 million to settle claims it failed to get parental consent for charges racked up by children playing games on mobile devices.
The groups asking for an investigation also argued that YouTube Kids is misleading to parents. Videos promote McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza even though Google’s policy states ads for food and beverages are prohibited, according to the consumer groups.
In addition to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, other groups asking the FTC to investigate include the Center for Digital Democracy, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Consumer Federation of America and Public Citizen.
The Federal Communications Commission requires television programs directed at children to clearly separate programming from advertising, according to the groups. Those rules should apply to online video content, said Aaron Mackey, an attorney with Georgetown University’s Institute for Public Representation.
“No matter what screen you’re viewing it on, the same rules should apply,” Mackey said.