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Google, YouTube Kids under fire for 'inappropriate content'

Child advocacy groups say that the "family friendly" YouTube Kids app is anything but that.

YouTube Kids is again under fire from child-advocacy groups. YouTube

Google's YouTube Kids app is again under fire from child advocacy groups. But this time around, the charges are far more serious.

The Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) issued a letter to the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday saying that the YouTube Kids app is "rife" with content that is not only unsuitable for children, but potentially harmful. In a review over the last month, the organizations discovered that the YouTube Kids app includes a swath of "inappropriate content" ranging from "explicit sexual language" to "jokes about pedophilia and drug use."

UNSAFE FOR CHILDREN?

Google launched YouTube Kids with good intentions: to provide a safe place for children to view video content. The child-advocacy groups, however, say Google has failed in that goal of creating a child-friendly home for kids to watch videos.

The letter is the second from the child-advocacy groups CCFC and CDD. In April, the groups wrote a letter to the FTC saying that YouTube Kids' use of ads was both deceptive and attempts to "take advantage of children's developmental vulnerabilities and violate long-standing media and advertising safeguards that protect children viewing television."

Google in February launched its YouTube Kids app for iOS and Android. The service is intended to provide a safe environment for kids to browse content without running into inappropriate videos. To achieve that goal, Google went through YouTube and stripped away any content that was not directly targeted at children. Parental controls are also bundled with the app to help caregivers keep age-appropriate content in front of kids and limit viewing times.

"Videos in the YouTube Kids app are narrowed down to content appropriate for kids," Google wrote in a blog post in February. "You can browse channels and playlists in four categories: shows, music, learning and explore. Or search for videos of particular interest to your family, like how to build a model volcano, math tutorials, the amazing (and endless) world of trains -- and everything in between."

The central idea behind YouTube Kids is to provide a safe environment for children and reassure parents that if they were to step away from the screen, they wouldn't need to worry about the content their kids were viewing. However, the groups say that "Google is deceiving parents" about its ability to screen content.

The groups specifically cited a video showing a parody of the adult-themed film "Casino" featuring Bert and Ernie from "Sesame Street." A recommendation feature built into YouTube Kids revealed wine tasting videos, the organizations said.

"INAPPROPRIATE CONTENT" QUESTIONED

"In sum, Google does not, in fact, 'screen out the videos that make parents nervous' and its representations of YouTube Kids as a safe, child-friendly version of YouTube are deceptive," the groups wrote. "Parents who download the app are likely to expose their children to the very content they believed they would avoid by using the preschool version of YouTube."

"We work to make the videos in YouTube Kids as family-friends as possible and take feedback very seriously," a YouTube spokeswoman said in response to the letter. "We appreciate people drawing problematic content to our attention, and make it possible for anyone to flag a video. Flagged videos are manually reviewed 24/7 and any videos that don't belong in the app are removed. For parents who want a more restricted experience, we recommend that they turn off search."

Imperfections in available content are not necessarily a surprise. Although Google hasn't revealed exactly how content gets to YouTube Kids, 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube.com each minute, and if some of it is deemed kid-friendly, it can be swept into YouTube Kids. Ensuring that inappropriate content won't slip through the cracks could prove extremely difficult, which is why YouTube Kids has a flagging process that allows users to alert the company to adult-oriented content. Still, the fact that children can see what the organizations call "inappropriate content" puts YouTube in the crosshairs of any organization trying to protect kids.

That said, Google isn't alone in offering a child-friendly video service. Netflix, for instance, has an entire section of curated content for children. Hulu and Amazon also have special kids-only sections in their own video services. YouTube's service is different, however, by providing user-uploaded content in addition to professional programming. The other services offer professional content acquired through licensing deals with the content owners.

Josh Golin, associate director at the Campaign for CCFC, told CNET in an interview that his organization's focus on Google's YouTube Kids app and not on those other services has everything to do with his charge that the search giant's video service is not protecting children.

"Our concerns about YouTube Kids began when we realized that Google was obliterating long-standing principles designed to protect children from commercialism," Golin told CNET. "The app exploits children's developmental vulnerabilities by intermixing programming and commercial content in ways that are prohibited in children's television. We targeted YouTube Kids because Google was marketing to children in unfair and deceptive ways on the app and we knew that others were likely to follow Google in this race to the bottom if the FTC didn't hold them accountable."

The FTC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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