Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa might be next targets for kid personal privacy laws


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The FTC wishes to take a more detailed take a look at voice search. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The United States Federal Trade Commission slapped a record $170 million fine on YouTube previously today for breaching online personal privacy laws for kids. That might be simply the start. Regulators hinted that voice assistants like the Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa might be their next target. 

On Wednesday, the FTC and New York Attorney General Letitia James stated that YouTube, owned by Google, purposefully and unlawfully gathered kids’s information without their moms and dads’ approval. The practice ran afoul of the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. 

YouTube, which invites more than 2 billion visitors a month, is the world’s biggest video website, with more than 500 hours of video published to the platform every minute. You technically need to be 13 or older to utilize the website, however kids and moms and dads have actually long disregarded that guideline. In reaction to the fine, Google stated it would make sweeping modifications to YouTube, consisting of having developers plainly recognize their child-focused material and ending targeted advertisements for those videos.

The fine is simply the most recent example of regulators taking a more crucial stand versus huge tech, which has actually entered warm water for its failure to secure our information. One of the most unexpected consequences of the YouTube case, however, will be a more difficult take a look at the world of voice searches — a location that’s currently developed a great deal of debate.

“Another issue that we are planning to look at is the collection and use of audio files,” Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, stated throughout an interview Wednesday after the fine was revealed. 

Smith stated the firm currently has policies concerning voice commands, such as those a kid would offer to an internet-connected toy. It’s fine for gadgets to tape the voice inquiries of kids without adult approval, however just if the files are erased “as soon as practicable afterwards,” Smith stated. The FTC attended to kids’s voice recordings in depth 2 years back when it launched a brand-new policy enforcement declaration for COPPA.

Some in the tech world applauded the relocation. 

“Children are highly vulnerable internet users: They can’t decipher privacy policies, can’t meaningfully consent to what data they share, and are impressionable to targeted advertisements,” Ashley Boyd, Mozilla’s vice president of advocacy, stated in a declaration Thursday. “Any extra attention paid to online privacy is a good thing — especially in the realm of voice, and especially in the context of kids.”

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At the press conference, Smith didn’t mention any tech giants by name, and the FTC didn’t respond to a request for additional comment about its review of voice commands. But when you think of voice technology, no products have had as much influence as Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant and Apple’s Siri. All those services have apps and content aimed at kids, including the ability to have the software tell you G-rated jokes. Alexa and the Google Assistant have a setting where commands must be followed by the word “please,” aimed at teaching children good manners. Amazon also has an Echo Dot Kids Edition, which comes in bright colors and includes a kid-friendly version of Alexa.

An FTC investigation into these leading voice assistants would add even more heat to tech companies already under intense government scrutiny, facing questions over their potential monopolistic practices and privacy breaches. Voice assistants have also become big businesses for Google and Amazon, and any regulatory changes could have noticeable impacts on how their smart speakers will interact with customers.

Google didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Amazon declined to comment.

Jeff Chester, of the Center for Digital Democracy, said it makes sense for the FTC to scrutinize Google in areas other than online video. “Everything is connected at Google,” Chester said. “The commission failed to look at Google’s child-directed actions throughout its entire operation.”

Chester’s organization, along with a group called the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, also led a cohort of children’s development groups by filing a complaint in May with the FTC, urging the agency to investigate the Echo Dot Kids Edition. 


Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids Edition comes in bright colors.

Sarah Tew/CNET

However, Chester and other child advocates are worried about the damage that could be done by reviewing the COPPA rules. He thinks tech giants could take advantage of the reassessment by trying to weaken the restrictions. 

Even though the FTC has addressed voice recordings in its enforcement policies, the commission said during its press conference that it could possibly change the COPPA rule itself to address voice recordings, too. But Angela Campbell, the lawyer who drafted the complaint against YouTube to the FTC, is also worried about changing the rule. She said it’s “unnecessary.” 

“By putting it in the rule, they open the door to potential abuses,” said Campbell, co-director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Public Representation. “I worry if you loosen that up, you intentionally or unintentionally create additional loopholes. Whatever inch you give [the tech companies], they’re going to take a mile.” 

Already questionable

Google, Amazon and Apple have actually currently dealt with blowback for personal privacy issues when it concerns audio recordings of digital assistant searches.

In July, Google validated that third-party employees who examine language information from the Assistant dripped personal Dutch discussions. Belgian public broadcaster VRT NWS stated more than 1,000 files had actually been dripped, consisting of recordings from circumstances where users inadvertently set off Google’s software application. 

Amazon has stated an “extremely small” variety of Alexa recordings are annotated to assist make its speech acknowledgment systems much better. Apple professionals apparently hear personal recordings too, consisting of medical details, according to a report in July from The Guardian. Apple informed The Guardian a “small portion” of the information is utilized to assist enhance Siri and dictation.

In reaction to the scandals, Google and Apple paused their language evaluation procedures for voice recordings. Apple not long after chosen to listen to recordings just from users who decided in to its human evaluation program. Amazon started letting users pull out of human evaluation. 

Amazon in specific has actually drawn criticism for voice recordings of kids. Two suits in June declared that Amazon stopped working to get appropriate approval prior to taping kids’s voices and keeping those recordings forever. And Mozilla, the not-for-profit tech business that owns Firefox, in 2015 contacted Amazon to offer more-specific details on how it utilizes kids’s information gathered through the Echo Dot Kids Edition.

Amazon has stated its kids-focused Echo Dot and its associated FreeTime on Alexa software application are COPPA-compliant. It pointed out in an article released in May that it needs adult approval and permits moms and dads to erase kids’s profiles and recordings. But some critics do not believe those defenses suffice.

In the meantime, while Chester believes the YouTube settlement with the FTC might’ve been for a bigger quantity, he considers it a big win for COPPA. “It opens the door for more advocacy,” he stated. “It continues the fight.”

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