FTC forcing through rethink on data throttling

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has come to a settlement with AT&T over a 2014 lawsuit on data throttling in unlimited tariffs.

While few consumers will have knowledge of data throttling clauses in ‘unlimited’ tariffs, the practise is widespread. It is of course a nuance rather than being directly misleading, though this settlement might well create precedent to shift the approach to data throttling in the US.

“AT&T promised unlimited data – without qualification – and failed to deliver on that promise,” said Andrew Smith, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “While it seems obvious, it bears repeating that Internet providers must tell people about any restrictions on the speed or amount of data promised.”

The complaint was initially filed in 2014 suggesting AT&T was misleading millions of customers with the practise of data throttling. Although there might be an argument for throttling extremely heavy users on a basis of reasonable use, it does appear AT&T went too far. The FTC suggested AT&T was throttling speeds to such a degree some common applications become difficult or nearly impossible to use.

In the case quoted by the FTC, AT&T sold ‘unlimited’ plans to 3.5 million customers but then throttled speeds once 2 GB of data was consumed in the billing period. At the time, this would have been considered a hefty allowance, though many would have surpassed this quota.

The $60 million sum paid by AT&T to settle this complaint will partly be used to refund customers who signed up for the services in 2014. Those who are still AT&T customers will have the refund automatically applied to their account.

As telcos are now exposed to the threat of a FTC fine, there might well have to be a rethink as to how data throttling is applied to data tariffs.

Firstly, this settlement will not mean the end of data throttling, however the telcos will have to consider whether the current cut-off point would be deemed appropriate. It is perfectly reasonable to restrict the consumption of data in very extreme cases, though the FTC will have to agree to these quotas being reasonable.

Secondly, the telcos will have to make more of an effort to educate the customer on the purpose of data throttling as well as increase awareness as to when it will be introduced. As it stands, most of these unattractive elements of contracts are usually buried in the terms and conditions though this will have to change.

This is of course not the only example of a US telco finding themselves in hot water because of data throttling. During California wild-fires last year, Verizon throttled the data services of a fire department

Ultimately, many consumers will not be impacted, however with data consumption rapidly increasing through more data-intensive applications and a broader array of connected devices, more will be in the future. The US telcos will have to ensure the data throttling practices are evolving with the progress of connectivity, as well as being more transparent when customers sign-up to contracts.

Is $170 million a big enough fine to stop Google privacy violations?

Another week has passed, and we have another story focusing on privacy violations at Google. This time it has cost the search giant $170 million, but is that anywhere near enough?

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has announced yet another fine for Google, this time the YouTube video platform has been caught breaking privacy rules. An investigation found YouTube had been collecting and processing personal data of children, without seeking permission from the individuals or parents.

“YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons. “Yet when it came to complying with COPPA [the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act], the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids. There’s no excuse for YouTube’s violations of the law.”

Once again, a prominent member of the Silicon Valley society has been caught flaunting privacy laws. The ‘act now, seek permission later’ attitude of the internet giants is on show and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of these incredibly powerful and monstrously influential companies respecting laws or the privacy rights of users.

At some point, authorities are going to have to ask whether these companies will ever respect these rules on their own, or whether they have to be forced. If there is a carrot and stick approach, the stick has to be sharp, and we wonder whether it is anywhere near sharp enough. The question which we would like to pose here is whether $170 million is a large enough deterrent to ensure Google does something to respect the rules.

Privacy violations are nothing new when it comes to the internet. This is partly down to the fragrant attitude of those left in positions of responsibility, but also the inability for rule makers to keep pace with the eye-watering fast progress Silicon Valley is making.

In this example, rules have been introduced to hold Google accountable, however we do not believe the fine is anywhere near large enough to ensure action.

Taking 2018 revenues at Google, the $170 million fine represents 0.124% of the total revenues made across the year. Google made on average, $370 million per day, roughly $15 million per hour. It would take Google just over 11 hours and 20 minutes to pay off this fine.

Of course, what is worth taking into account is that these numbers are 12 months old. Looking at the most recent financial results, revenues increased 19% year-on-year for Q2 2019. Over the 91-day period ending June 30, Google made $38.9 billion, or $427 million a day, $17.8 million an hour. It would now take less than 10 hours to pay off the fine.

Fines are supposed to act as a deterrent, a call to action to avoid receiving another one. We question whether these numbers are relevant to Google and if the US should consider its own version of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

This is a course which would strike fear into the hearts of Silicon Valley’s leadership, as well as pretty much every other company which has any form of digital presence. It was hard work to become GDPR compliant, though it was necessary. Those who break the rules are now potentially exposed to a fine of €20 million or 3% of annual revenue. British Airways was recently fined £183 million for GDPR violations, a figure which represented 1.5% of total revenues due to co-operation from BA during the investigation and the fact it owned-up.

More importantly, European companies are now taking privacy, security and data protection very seriously, though the persistent presence of privacy violations in the US suggests a severe overhaul of the rules and punishments are required.

Of course, Google and YouTube have reacted to the news in the way you would imagine. The team has come, cap in hand, to explain the situation.

“We will also stop serving personalized ads on this content entirely, and some features will no longer be available on this type of content, like comments and notifications,” YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said in a statement following the fine.

“In order to identify content made for kids, creators will be required to tell us when their content falls in this category, and we’ll also use machine learning to find videos that clearly target young audiences, for example those that have an emphasis on kids characters, themes, toys, or games.”

The appropriate changes have been made to privacy policies and the way in which ads are served to children, though amazingly, the blog post does not feature the words ‘sorry’, ‘apology’, ‘wrong’ or ‘inappropriate’. There is no admission of fault, simply a statement that suggests they will be compliant with the rules.

We wonder how long it will be before Google will be caught breaking privacy rules again. Of course, Google is not alone here, if you cast the net wider to include everyone from Silicon Valley, we suspect there will be another incident, investigation or fine to report on next week.

Privacy rules are not acting as a deterrent nowadays. These companies have simply grown too large for the fines imposed by agencies to have a material impact. We suspect Google made much more than $170 million through the adverts served to children over this period. If the fine does not exceed the benefit, will the guilty party stop? Of course not, Google is designed to make money not serve the world.

FTC Chair kicks off race to tackle big tech before it’s too late

A race seems to be heating up in the US. On one side, government officials are looking to tackle the influence of big tech, and on the other, Silicon Valley is trying to make it as difficult as possible.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Chairman of the FTC Joseph Simons has stated he believes efforts from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to more intrinsically integrate the different platforms could seriously complicate his own investigation. Back in July, it was unveiled the FTC was conducting a probe to understand whether competition has been negatively impacted by the social media giant.

However, Facebook has gone on the offensive and Simons is clearly not thrilled about it.

“If they’re maintaining separate business structures and infrastructure, it’s much easier to have a divestiture in that circumstance than in where they’re completely enmeshed, and all the eggs are scrambled,” said Simons.

This is the issue which the FTC is facing; Facebook is more closely integrating the separate brands. From a commercial perspective, this will allow the social media giant to cross-pollinate the platforms, potentially increasing revenues and enhancing the data-analytics machine, though it will also make divestments much more difficult to enforce.

Looking across the big names in Silicon Valley, this is a common business practice. The commercial benefits are of course very obvious, but it could be viewed as a defensive strategy in preparation for any snooping from government agencies.

At Google, with the benefit of hindsight, some regulators and politicians might have wanted to have block the acquisitions of Android, YouTube or artificial intelligence firm DeepMind. These acquisitions have led Google to become one of the most influential companies on the planet, though it does appear regulators at the time did not have the vision to understand the long-term impact. Now the services are so deeply embedded and inter-twined it is perhaps unfeasible to consider divestments.

Amazon is another company some of these politicians would love to tackle, but how do you go about breaking-up such a complex business, where the moving parts are becoming increasingly reliant on each-other?

Going back almost two decades, this is not the first-time regulators have attempted to tackle an overly influential player. Thanks to dominance in the PC arena, Microsoft was deemed to be negatively influencing competition when it came to software and applications. Despite Microsoft being forced to settle the case with the Department of Justice in 2001, the concessions stopped far short of a company break-up.

As part of the settlement, Microsoft agreed to make it easier competitors to get their software more closely integrated with the Windows OS, by breaking the company into two separate units, one to produce the operating system, and one to produce other software components. This was a tough pill for Microsoft to swallow, but it was a favourable outcome for the internet giant.

One view on this outcome is that Microsoft managed to structure its business in such a way it became almost impossible to split-up. If the technology giants of today can learn some lessons from Microsoft, they might well be able to circumnavigate any aggression from the US government.

Although the FTC is stealing the headlines here, it is not the only party looking to tackle the influence of Silicon Valley.

The House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee that deals with antitrust has already summoned Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google to testify. This investigation is also looking at the potential negative impact these monstrously large companies are having on competition. A couple of weeks later, the Department of Justice also opened its own probe.

Of course, there are also posturing politicians who are aiming to plug for PR points by slamming Silicon Valley. This is a very popular strategy, with the likes of Virginia Senator Mark Warner and Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren taking a firm stance. President Trump has rarely been a friend of Silicon Valley either.

Another interest element to consider are the lawyers. Reports have emerged this morning to suggest as many as 20 State Attorney Generals will also be launching their own investigation. The threat of legal action could be very worrying for Silicon Valley, with a number of the lawyers already suggesting they do not like the way the digital economy is evolving, with the concentration of power one of the biggest problems.

The US has generally tolerated monopolies or an unreasonable concentration of power in economic verticals to a point, generally until infrastructure has been sorted, though the pain threshold might be getting to close. This has been seen with a break-up of Standard Oil’s monopoly, as well as splitting the Bell System, a corporation which was a monopoly in some regions for more than a century, into the Baby Bells across North America in the 1980s.

The internet giants will never publicly state they are participating in strategies which in-effect act as a hindrance to government agencies, but it must be a pleasant by-product. First and foremost, the internet giants will want to integrate different products and services for commercial reasons, operational efficiencies or increased revenues for example, however one eye will be cast on these investigations.

It does appear there is an arms race emerging. Government agencies and ambitious politicians are collecting ammunition for an assault on Silicon Valley, and the internet giants are shoring up defences to ensure a continuation of the status quo. This is a battle for power, and its one the US Government could very feasibly lose.

FTC warns of break-up of big tech

The technology industry has often been a political punching bag over the last 18-24 months, and now the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is adding to the misery.

In an interview with Bloomberg, FTC Chairman Joe Simons has suggested his agency would be prepared to break-up big tech, undoing previous acquisitions, should it prove to be the best means to prevent anti-competitive activities. This would be a monumental task, though it seems the tides of favour have turned against Silicon Valley.

This is not the first time the internet giants have faced criticism, and it won’t be the last, but what is worth noting is the industry has not endeared itself to friendly comments from political offices around the world. Recent events and scandals, as well as the exploitation of grey areas in the law, have hindered the relationship between Silicon Valley and ambitious politicians.

In this instance, the FTC is currently undertaking an investigation to understand the impact the internet giants are having on competition and the creation of new businesses. Let’s not forget, supporting the little man and small businesses is a key component of the political armoury, and with a Presidential Election around the corner, PR plugs will be popping up all over the place.

Looking at one of those plugs, Democrat candidate-hopeful Elizabeth Warren has already made this promise. Back in March, Warren launched her own Presidential ambitions with the promise to hold the internet giants accountable to the rules. Not only does this mean adding bills to the legislative chalkboard, but potentially breaking up those companies which are deemed ‘monopolistic’.

This has of course been an issue for years in Europe. The European Commission has stopped short of pushing for a break-up, though Google constantly seems to be in the antitrust spotlight for one reason or another. Whether it is default applications through Android or preferential treatment for shopping algorithms, it is under investigation. The latest investigation has seen job recruiters moaning over anti-competitive activities for job sites.

What is also worth noting is that the US has a habit of diluting the concentration of power in certain segments throughout its history. The US Government seems to be tolerant of monopolies while the industry is being normalised and infrastructure is being deployed, before opening-up the segment.

During the early 1910s, Standard Oil was being attacked as a monopoly, though this was only after it has finished establishing the rail network to efficiently transport products throughout the US. In the 1980s, the Bell System was broken-up into the regional ‘Baby Bells’ to increase competition throughout the US telco market.

The internet could be said to have reached this point also. A concentration of power might have been accepted as a necessary evil to ensure economy of scale, to accelerate the development and normalisation of the internet economy, though it might have reached the tipping point.

That said, despite the intentions of US politicians, this might be a task which is much more difficult to complete. It has been suggested Facebook has been restructuring its business and processes to make it more difficult to break-up. It also allegedly backed out of the acquisition of video-focused social network Houseparty for fears it would raise an antitrust red-flag and prompt deeper investigations.

You have to wonder whether the other internet giants are making the same efforts. For example, IBM’s Watson, its AI flagship, has been integrated throughout its entire portfolio, DeepMind has been equally entwined throughout Google, while the Amazon video business is heavily linked to the eCommerce platform. These companies could argue the removal of certain aspect would be overly damaging to the prospects of the business and also a bureaucratic nightmare to untangle.

The more deeply embedded some of these acquisitions are throughout all elements of the business, the more difficult it becomes to separate them. It creates a position where the internet giants can fight back against any new regulation, as these politicians would not want to harm the overarching global leadership position. Evening competition is one thing but sacrificing a global leadership position in the technology industry defending the consumer would be unthinkable.

This is where you have to take these claims from the FTC and ambitious politicians with a pinch-of-salt. These might be very intelligent people, but they will have other jobs aside from breaking-up big tech. The internet giants will have incredibly intelligent people who will have the sole-task of making it impossible to achieve these aims.

FTC hits Facebook with $5bn privacy fine

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has hit Facebook with a fine of $5 billion relating to numerous privacy violations over the last few years.

The fine itself, which is the largest ever imposed on any company for violating consumers’ privacy, will be accompanied by broad changes to its consumer privacy practices. The decision will also force Facebook to add in more decision-making capability on its privacy policies.

“Despite repeated promises to its billions of users worldwide that they could control how their personal information is shared, Facebook undermined consumers’ choices,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons.

“The magnitude of the $5 billion penalty and sweeping conduct relief are unprecedented in the history of the FTC. The relief is designed not only to punish future violations but, more importantly, to change Facebook’s entire privacy culture to decrease the likelihood of continued violations.”

The accusations directed towards Facebook will sound very familiar. Whether it is using deceptive disclosures or secretive settings to disguise features and undermine privacy principles, or violation of previous commitments made to privacy in a 2012 FTC Order and dubious data-sharing relationships with third-parties, Facebook is facing a massive disruption to the way it manages data and approaches user privacy.

Looking at the changes Facebook will have to make, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is no-longer allowed to be the single decision maker for privacy policies, a position which was ridiculous in the first place. Facebook will also be forced to appoint an ‘independent privacy committee’ to ensure a position which is consistent with society’s expectations.

Privacy policies will filter down through the organization, theoretically, through the appointment of Compliance Officers. Another condition set upon Facebook is granting more powers to independent third-party assessors, who will conduct privacy orders every other year.

There are numerous other orders placed on Facebook as part of the negotiation between the FTC and the social media giant, including:

  • Facebook must exercise greater oversight over third-party apps
  • Phone numbers obtained to enable a security feature cannot be used in advertising mechanisms
  • Facebook must provide clear and conspicuous notice of its use of facial recognition technology
  • Facebook must encrypt user passwords and regularly audit security systems

While many of these demands from the FTC might be considered as business practise in today’s privacy conscious world, they are likely to cause a disruption for Facebook internally.

“After months of negotiations, we’ve reached an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission that provides a comprehensive new framework for protecting people’s privacy and the information they give us,” said Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch.

“The agreement will require a fundamental shift in the way we approach our work and it will place additional responsibility on people building our products at every level of the company. It will mark a sharper turn toward privacy, on a different scale than anything we’ve done in the past.”

Although it is an incredibly steep fine for Facebook to stomach, we suspect it won’t bother the bean counters than much. Facebook is a money-making machine, and this will soon enough be nothing more than a minor blip. The disruption to its finely-tuned advertising machine will be more of an issue, but it could work in Facebook’s favour.

Facebook is being forced to be more transparent and treat privacy principles with respect. Left to its own fate, the social media giant probably wouldn’t have taken such drastic measures to disrupt itself. However, being forced into these changes could earn Facebook trust and credibility points in the eyes of the consumer.

If Facebook owns this punishment, while shouting and screaming about the changes it is making to become compliant with the order, it could swing public favour back onto its side. Facebook needs to present itself as a privacy conscious organization and this is a perfect opportunity to do so.

Facebook investors brush off leaked $5 billion fine

It has been widely reported that Facebook will receive a record fine for privacy violations, but investors seems strangely pleased about it.

All the usual-suspect business papers seem to have received the leak late last week that the US Federal Trade Commission voted narrowly to fine Facebook $5 billion for data privacy violations related to the Cambridge Analytica thing. The FTC, like the FCC, has five commissioners, three of which are affiliated to the Republican party and two the Democrats. As ever they voted on partisan lines, with the Democrats once more opposing the move.

The FTC has yet to make an official announcement, so we don’t know the stated reasons for the Democrat objections. But since that party seems to have decided it would have won the last general election if it wasn’t for those meddling targeted political ads, it’s safe to assume they think the fine is too lenient.

Just because the Democrats have a vested interest, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong, however. Of course Democrat politicians have criticised the decision, but many more independent commentators have noted that the fine amounts to less than a quarter’s profit for the social media giant. Nilay Patel, Editor in Chief of influential tech site The Verge, seems to speak for many in this tweet.

That Facebook’s share price actually went up after such a big fine initially seems remarkable, but all it really indicates is that Facebook had done a good job of communicating the risk to its investors, so a five bil hit was already priced in. The perfectly legitimate point, however, is that as a punishment one month’s revenue is unlikely to serve as much of a deterrent from future transgressions.

Patel seems very hostile to Facebook, stating in his opinion piece on the matter “Facebook has done nothing but behave badly from inception.” A lot of this bad behaviour consists of exploiting user data, but what is really under attack seems to be Facebook’s core business model and, to some extent, the whole-ad-funded model on which sites like The Verge rely.

Debates need to be had about the way the Internet operates and monetizes itself, but identifying Facebook as a uniquely bad actor when it comes to exploiting user data seems disingenuous. Laws and regulations are struggling to catch up with the business models of internet giants and there are many other questions to be asked about how they operate.

The fact that Facebook’s share price has now largely recovered from the Cambridge Analytica scandal of a year or so ago, as illustrated by the Google Finance screenshot below, indicates that investors consider these issues to be just another business risk, to be weighed up against obscene profits. While we have always considered the scandal to be overblown, it also seems clear that, as a meaningful punishment, even a $5 billion fine is totally inadequate in this case.

Facebook share price July 19

FTC launches investigation for privacy practices in US

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued orders to seven US broadband providers seeking non-public information to assess privacy practises.

Although this investigation is relatively broad, this might be another attempt from the US Government to get a handle on the privacy practices of the fast-evolving digital economy. Several scandals over the last 18 months have demonstrated current rules are not fit for purpose, containing too many loopholes and inadequately governing an industry which has progressed beyond the reach of bureaucracy.

The FTC has been under pressure in recent months to get a better handle on the data machines which power the digital economy, bringing in billions for the likes of Amazon and Google, but increasingly the telcos. While many fingers have been pointed at the residents of Silicon Valley, the telcos have been making money through the transfer of personal information also.

This investigation is an important step forward in creating a better understanding of the data and sharing economy, a foundation to create resilient and future-proof regulations. Some might suggest this sort of investigation should have happened years ago, but hindsight is always 20/20; who would have predicted the scale of scandals we have witnessed recently.

AT&T, AT&T Mobility, Comcast Cable Communications, Google Fiber, T-Mobile US, Verizon, and Cellco Partnership are the firms which have received the demands.

As part of the investigation, the FTC is requesting:

  • The categories of personal information collected about consumers or their devices
  • Purpose of collecting data for each of the categories
  • Methods of collecting the data
  • Policies for employees to access this data
  • Retention policies
  • What information is transferred to third-parties
  • How the data is the information is aggregated, anonymized or deidentified
  • Disclosures to customers about data collection and transfer to third-parties
  • What choices are offered to the customer
  • How accessible personal data is to the customer

As you can see, this is an incredibly broad and in-depth request, with a lot of the information being non-public. Many of the telcos who have been sent the orders will be uncomfortable releasing this information, though they’ll have no choice.

Although this is a good first step for the FTC, we would hope the investigation is broadened further in the future. More information and insight needs to be collected from the OTTs, the masters of manipulating the data-sharing economy. The telcos are small fish in this expedition, but it is progress.

All eyes from the data-sharing community will be keenly directed towards the FTC over the next couple of months. While this investigation is nothing more than a virtual pebble dropped into the digital pond for the moment, there is the potential for those ripples to grow into waves. This could be the first step towards major regulatory reform, an overdue revolution to gain a better handle on the wild-west internet economy.

Qualcomm’s business model hangs in the balance as FTC case concludes

The US Federal Trade Commission accused Qualcomm of abusing a monopoly two years ago. Now a judge is set to decide if it was right to do so.

The original accusations coincided almost exactly with the commencement of hostilities between Qualcomm and Apple, with the latter saying the former was getting away with overcharging for its mobile chips thanks to having a monopoly in that market. The FTC case pretty much echoed that claim, with accusations of FRAND patent abuse thrown in for good measure.

It apparently takes a couple of years for this sort of thing to play out and the respective parties delivered their closing arguments recently. The FTC doesn’t seem to have made a formal announcement on the matter but credit to Cnet which has actually done some old fashioned reporting and sent someone into the court room.

Here’s the Cnet report from 15 Jan, which covers the FTC side of the case. The core of it seems to be that forcing companies who want to buy its chips to also take out patent licenses is wrong. It also claims that this process prevents other chip makers coming into the market and thus harms competition. Unsurprisingly a couple of Apple execs turned up to support the FTC case.

Among the FTC’s closing arguments is the warning that, if Qualcomm isn’t stopped, it will abuse the 5G market as it has previous once. But Apple’s own shift from Qualcomm to Intel chips would appear to contradict that assumption, as does Huawei’s recent launch of a 5G modem. These are also unhelpful in its bid to claim Qualcomm has a monopoly.

“The FTC hasn’t come close to meeting its burden of proof in this case,” said Qualcomm General Counsel Don Rosenberg in a press announcement. “All real-world evidence presented at trial showed how Qualcomm’s years of R&D and innovation fostered competition, and growth for the entire mobile economy to the benefit of consumers around the world.

“Our licensing rates – which were set long before we had a chip business, and revalidated time and again – fairly and accurately reflect the value of our patent portfolio. Qualcomm’s technology has been the foundation of a thriving, competitive industry.”

Now Judge Lucy Koh, who’s a veteran of this sort of thing, needs to weigh up all the evidence and arguments, and make a call one way or the other. The stakes are pretty high for Qualcomm as a decision against it would effectively be a decision against a big part of its business model. Expect Qualcomm’s share price react strongly either way when the decision is announced, which Koh warned might take a while.

The Children Act: US lawmakers asking to know how YouTube collects data on children

US Congressmen have demanded Google CEO answers questions on how YouTube tracks the data of minors.

Anyone who has been a parent to toddlers or pre-schoolers in the last dozen years must have felt, like it or not, YouTube has been a wonderful thing. It does not only provide occasional surrogate parenting but also delivers much genuine pleasure to the kids, from entertainment to education, with sheer silly laughter in between.

Meanwhile we have also recognised that YouTube can be a pain as much as a pleasure. The pre-roll and interstitial ads on such content are all clearly pushed at kids, in particular game and toy shopping; recommendations are based on what has been played therefore encouraging binge watching; not to mention the disturbing Peppa Pig or Micky Mouse spoof parodies that keep creeping through, a clear sign that, while you are watching YouTube, “YouTube is watching you”.

But neither the pleasure nor the pain should have been there in the first place, because, though not many of us have paid attention, “YouTube is not for children”, as the video service officially puts it. In its terms of service YouTube does require users to be 13 years and above. But, unlike Facebook, which would lock the user out unless he has an account, anyone can watch YouTube without the need of an account. An account is only needed when someone intends to upload a clip or make a comment. Even in situation like this, children can pretend to be above the age limit by inputting a faked date of birth, or simply by using someone else’s account. And YouTube has known that all along, it even teaches users how to make “family-friend videos”. Admit it or not, YouTube is for children.

Following complaints from 23 child and privacy advocacy groups to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), two congressmen, David Cicilline (D) of Rhode Island, and Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska, sent a letter to Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai on September 17, demanding information on YouTube’s practices related to collection and usage of data of underaged users. The lawmakers invoked the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act 1998 (COPPA), which forbids the collection, use or disclosure of children’s online data without explicit parental consent, and contrasted it with Google’s terms of service which give Google (and its subsidiaries) the permission to collect user data including geolocation, device ID, and phone number. The congressmen asked Google to address by October 17 eight questions, which are essentially related to:

  • What quantity and type of data YouTube has collected on children;
  • How YouTube determines if the user is a child, what safeguard measures are in place to prevent children from using the service;
  • How children’s content is tagged, and how this is used for targeted advertising;
  • How YouTube is positioning YouTube Kids, and why content for children is still retained on the main YouTube site after being ported to the Kids version

Google would not be the first one to fall foul of COPPA. In a recent high-profile case, FTC, which has the mandate to implement the law, fined the mobile advertising network inMobi close to $1 million for tracking users’, including children’s location information without consent.

This certainly is a headache that Google can do without. It has just been humiliated by the revelation that users’ location data was still being tracked after the feature had been turned off, not to mention the never-ending lawsuits in Europe and the US over its alleged anti-trust practices. It also, once again, highlights the privacy minefield the internet giants find themselves in.  Facebook is still being haunted by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, while Amazon’s staff were selling consumer data outright.

Nine years before COPPA came into force, an all-encompassing Children Act was passed in the UK in 1989. In one of its opening lines the Act states “the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.” This line was later quoted by the author Ian McEwan in his novel, titled simply “The Children Act” (which was recently made into a film of the same title). In that spirit we laud the congressmen for taking the action again YouTube’s profiteering behaviours. To borrow from McEwan, sometimes children should be protected from their pleasure and from themselves.

FTC set to get in Facebook’s face, and its books

The US Federal Trade Commission has announced it is formally investigating Facebook’s privacy practices, which is unlikely to end well.

This was pretty inevitable given the spectacular amount of press surrounding the Cambridge Analytica stories. While it can be reasonably argued that it’s pretty naïve to be all shocked when you find out a social media company has been exploiting the personal data you willingly give it for profit, this scandal seems to have broken the dam on pent-up concerns about data privacy.

Again, that was bound to happen sooner or later. The rules on personal data have been made up on the fly because we’ve only had social media for a decade or two. It’s quite possible that Facebook has done nothing wrong in the legal sense but the world is now asking whether or not it should have been allowed to play so fast and loose with our digital identities regardless.

“The FTC is firmly and fully committed to using all of its tools to protect the privacy of consumers,” said Tom Pahl, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Foremost among these tools is enforcement action against companies that fail to honour their privacy promises, including to comply with Privacy Shield, or that engage in unfair acts that cause substantial injury to consumers in violation of the FTC Act.

“Companies who have settled previous FTC actions must also comply with FTC order provisions imposing privacy and data security requirements. Accordingly, the FTC takes very seriously recent press reports raising substantial concerns about the privacy practices of Facebook. Today, the FTC is confirming that it has an open non-public investigation into these practices.”

The implication there is that Facebook made some specific vows to the FTC that it may have violated. Even if it hasn’t, this kind of non-public investigation (and surely there will be leaks) will allow the FTC to dig around as much as it wants. Since the origin of this story was the relatively benign matter of exploiting a loophole and then selling that data on, it seems improbable that further such transgressions won’t be uncovered.

This news alone has spanked the Facebook share price down another few percent, just as it’s trying to recover from its latest PR challenge. Over the weekend there was widespread reporting that Facebook has been gathering the details of Android users’ contacts details, including phone numbers and text messages. A BBC journalist was taken aback to find his entire contact list among the files presented to him when he downloaded all the data Facebook has on him.

Facebook felt moved to defend itself on this specific count, insisting it has not been logging people’s call and text history without their permission. Apparently that is an opt-in feature for people using Messenger or Facebook Lite on Android, that you can opt out of whenever you want. Facebook also insisted it doesn’t collect the content of calls or texts and doesn’t sell any of this stuff on. Incidentally your correspondent doesn’t seem to have opted into this feature.

The fact that Facebook is having to defend an opt-in feature that has been in place since 2015 shows how much this story has changed the rules of the game. People have become hyper-aware of how freely they agreed to surrender information to Facebook and are retrospectively indignant. Unless Facebook successfully addresses this sentiment its share price will probably continue to fall.