YouTube fined just $170 million for tracking children

Google is looking in the couch for spare change after it was handed a $170 million fine for violation of child privacy laws over the space of a number of years.

The fine rolls in under Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)—a law enacted in 1998 to protect minors against monitoring or collection of personal data for those under 13, requiring companies to first get parental consent when using cookies or tracking activity online.

These fines are so small it's almost not worth bothering, given Google made a cool $39.2 billion in Q4 2018 alone. That means the YouTube fine is just 0.43% of the company's revenue in the space of three months, an amount that feels like permission to get away with doing it all over again.

This started with a case against Google in 2016, when a number of consumer groups and privacy advocates complained repeatedly about the site apparently targeting minors with advertising and tracking them, after luring them to the site with content made specifically for children.

The suit came just a year after YouTube Kids arrived, an app specifically targeting that age group, notably stripped of advertising and requiring parental consent—which came with other problems in tow. Google now pushes children toward this app actively, and recommended in its response to the ruling that kids use the separate app.

This ruling, yet again, highlights the weakness of the legal system up against companies that make so much money. The fine seems indeterminately low, and won't serve as much of a deterrent in the long run, when a percentage-of-revenue based fine would have made a serious dent that would make investors pay attention as well.

When companies are making tens of billions of dollars every year, a couple hundred million is literally what's stashed under the couch cushions. Yet again, it's a reminder of why the antitrust system needs a total shakeup. 

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