In case you missed it, YouTube settled with the FTC last week, agreeing to pay a record high $170 million in fines, as well as to make changes to the platform to protect the privacy of children. Regulators agreed that YouTube had illegally (and knowingly) mined personal data from children and used it to profit by serving them targeted ads (how YouTube, and YouTubers make most of their money on content).
$170 million may sound like a lot of money, it is, but to Google and YouTube this is likely a drop in the bucket. The fines, while a new record and a big deal for the FTC and those worried about COPPA - the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (don’t ask me where the “A” came from) - that’s the least of the concerns for YouTube or for those of us creating on the platform.
The big deal, instead, is the massive change that will take place on the platform over the next few months. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki outlined some of these changes in an Official YouTube Blog post on Wednesday.
Firstly, YouTube will end collection of data for children’s content, other than what is required to operate the site (such as having an account, if signed in). This won’t just apply to users that YouTube interprets as being children, but all users viewing content targeted at children.
Next, YouTube will no longer serve personalized ads on children’s content. This is a huge deal, as personalized ads are the top earners for YouTube content. Families and creators making children’s content full-time will see their revenue drop dramatically - or cease to exist altogether. I’ll come back to this soon.
Certain YouTube features, which involve data collection, will also no longer be available on children’s content - such as comments and notifications. This could also have big impacts on the viewership and discoverability of the content. It could also not - engagement doesn’t seem to weigh too heavily in YouTube’s current Search and Discovery system, and are toddlers really checking notifications to be the first to watch the latest toy review? (Probably not.)
A concern I didn’t think about at first here, but what about potential YouTube Red Premium viewership and revenue? I don’t know if YouTube Premium viewers are even a big enough blip on the radar of kids content to matter, but the idea of not tracking any personal info for that content could remove the possibility of earning any YouTube Premium revenue for a channel at all. But that could also fall under the “what’s required to operate the site” exception.
As with all new systems on YouTube, the site will use a mix of machine learning and self-reporting to identify content made for kids. As with many things, creators will be required to indicate if the content they’re uploading is targeted for children (though no word if there will be consequences for regularly not reporting this). The machine learning side will focus on videos that “clearly target young audiences” with emphasis on kids characters, toys, and games. I’d start preparing to submit appeals and deal with some headache now - as with the roll-outs of the Content ID and ad-friendly guidelines machine learning systems, there’s going to be a lot of false positives in the first wave of detection. YouTube typically takes a “detect everything and refine from there” approach. Be prepared for all of the “YOUTUBE IS KILLING MY CHANNEL I DON’T MAKE KIDS CONTENT STOP SAYING I DO” Tweets. They’re coming. Even from creators you thought were level-headed.
The good news is, YouTube has stated that they’re taking “about four months” to get to this point. This gives creators time to prepare and adjust (enough time? Hard to tell.) and the system to be developed before unleashing it and taking everyone by surprise.
Susan also stated that they will continue to improve the YouTube Kids platform and further limit what kind of content makes it it. (Fun fact: My channel used to get some YouTube Kids traffic. I keep family friendly language in the vast majority of my videos, but I certainly don’t make content targeted at children.)
Now, the loss of ad revenue could be devastating for family and children-targeted channels. We could see one of the biggest shifts in the history of the platform as these channels fade away due to not being sustainable. The thought of that is kind of terrifying, especially considering there’s no better or more kid-safe alternative on the web. The New York Times cites Maureen Ohlhausen, a former acting chairwoman of the FTC with a good quote describing the potential damage this could cause:
“There is a lot of free content available for children,” she said. “You want to be sure that you don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”
Philip DeFranco also offers some solid perspective into the topic in his first video on the subject:
While the changes Susan outlined will do well to help protect YouTube itself, but this apparently doesn’t keep individual channels or creators from being targeted. Truth In Advertising actually filed a complaint with the FTC specifically against Ryan ToysReview over their use of sponsored content targeted at children, despite the channel following all of YouTube’s and the FTC’s own guidelines for sponsorship disclosure. While the complaint was technically filed prior to the YouTube settlement, I would see it at needing to be enforced within the context of that settlement - which can’t be done retro-actively. I don’t see this complaint going too far given that the channel seemed (based on a quick glance and examples pulled up by Philip DeFranco) to follow all guidelines for disclosure.
DeFranco describes kids content as a “money train” that is going away, and that sadly seems to be true. Even I have experimented with diving into kids-oriented content (such as toy or trading card unboxings) due to the seemingly limitless success and revenue the market offered, but that may be going away very soon. Less income to the platform hurts everyone on it, but less inventory could mean a rise in CPM for other niches of content. Not that we should be celebrating an entire chunk of YouTube losing revenue. And if the advertising money for kids content only wants to serve on that content, then they might pull out entirely, thus still hurting everyone.
A big thing that everyone is asking about is what YouTube will do, if anything, to support these creators or find a way to allow them to remain sustainable. Susan covered this briefly in her blog post, but the answer was both comforting and concerning at the same time.
She states that the four month delay is partially to help give an adjustment period, as I mentioned. YouTube will provide resources to “help them better understand these changes.” Because as long as they understand why their income is going away, it won’t be a problem, right? (Sorry for the snark response, but that was a genuine gut reaction to that statement and I’m trying to advocate for both sides here.)
Also, Susan adds that YouTube is establishing a $100 million fund, which will be used over the course of three years, “dedicated to the creation of thoughtful, original children’s content on YouTube and YouTube Kids globally.”
My initial feeling from this was that of comfort. YouTube is putting serious money into trying to make sure this niche of channels isn’t wiped off the platform by the end of 2019, awesome. But then I started thinking about what that would look like, and I became concerned. From the wording, it sounds like they could be investing in producing dedicated “shows” for kids content, much like YouTube Originals, to have a base of vetted, controlled videos to have 100% ownership and responsibility for to serve to kids. While this may involve bringing on some of the top creators from the niche, that ultimately would only benefit a few channels and in a small way. With public perception shifting towards “YouTube is becoming too much like TV,” this could have incredibly poor perception by the rest of the community.
But alternative actions include establishing a means of supplementing revenue for kids content creators to replace the lost ad revenue (but then how is it decided who gets it? Someone will inevitably get left out, and what happens at the end of the 3 years?), or investing in development of new systems to allow that content to be monetized. TV channels aimed at toddlers and children run commercials constantly, so perhaps if YouTube can make YouTube Kids a walled garden of focused kids content, they can get in on some of that action?
Obviously this is just the first response. Susan’s blog post was a means of getting ahead of the news cycle and having a PR statement ready to go. We’ll find out more over the next four months and can just hope, for now, that YouTube makes some good calls.
If you are a creator that makes content targeting children, I feel for you. This kind of thing is what keeps me up at night, and I really hope YouTube figures something out.
Tech educator, '90s and '00s Nostalgia Nerd, Pixel and Framerate Junkie. 12 years on YouTube is a loooong time.