Last night, at an event in San Francisco, I watched the veteran tech journalist John Markoff interview early Facebook investor and Zucked author Roger McNamee. Late in the discussion, the question turned to the progress of regulations against our tech platforms. On one hand, McNamee told the crowd, it feels like nothing is happening. But on the other, everywhere you look you see hints of action. And honest-to-goodness antitrust investigations, which might have seemed unthinkable three years ago, are now underway.
I thought about McNamee’s point this morning while reading about the $170 million in fines levied against Google by the Federal Trade Commission and the state of New York as part of a settlement over alleged violations of child privacy. Here’s Makena Kelly at The Verge
In the settlement, the FTC and the New York attorney general allege that Google marketed its video platform, YouTube, to advertisers knowing that many channels were popular with younger audiences. It also alleges that the company tracked the viewing histories of children in order to serve them ads, which violates the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The $170 million fine is the largest COPPA fine to date, dwarfing the fine TikTok’s parent company received last February for violations of the same law
“YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons. “Yet when it came to complying with COPPA, 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.”
Observers were quick to point out that, in Google terms, $170 million is a paltry sum — about 37 hours worth of profit, by one estimate
. Critics included members of Congress, as Natasha Singer and Kate Conger reported in the New York Times
Critics of the settlement, including Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, described the $170 million penalty as a slap on the wrist for one of the world’s richest companies.
“The F.T.C. let Google off the hook with a drop-in-the-bucket fine and a set of new requirements that fall well short of what is needed to turn YouTube into a safe and healthy place for kids,” Mr. Markey said in a statement.
Then again, this is
the largest-ever fine issued in connection with COPPA. And it will seemingly require YouTube to make some significant changes
to the platform: limiting data collection for videos that appear to target children, ending personalized ads for those videos, and creating a $100 million fund to pay for “thoughtful, original children’s content on YouTube and YouTube Kids globally.”
In other words, just because it’s basically the least that Alphabet can do doesn’t mean it won’t have some positive consequences. Political change, like technological change, rarely happens in great big leaps — most of the time it happens in frustratingly small, iterative changes.
If this whole story sounds very familiar, it’s because we just had basically the same entire discussion about Facebook’s own settlement with the FTC
. Then as now, there was a record fine that still looked tiny by revenue standards, a host of critics inside Congress and out — and meaningful changes whose effect we won’t be able to measure for quite some time. (The YouTube changes announced today won’t go into effect for four months.)
The Facebook settlement left me feeling skeptical that the United States government would succeed in reining in tech platform excess. It’s possible to read today’s YouTube news and be just as cynical. And yet I find that I’m not, mostly because there are now so many new shoes out there waiting to drop. A flurry of antitrust investigations are now underway, against Facebook and YouTube, and the latest will reportedly be announced at a press conference next week
. And whatever government-mandated changes are coming to the tech platforms, the biggest ones are likely still to come.