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Suit accusing YouTube of tracking children is back on after appeal

Kids looking at a laptop

An appeals court has revived a lawsuit that accuses Google, YouTube, DreamWorks, and a handful of toymakers of tracking the activity on YouTube of children under 13. In an opinion released Wednesday, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act does not bar lawsuits based on individual state privacy laws.

Passed in 1998 and amended in 2012, COPPA requires websites to obtain parental consent for the collection and dissemination of personally identifiable information of children under the age of 13. COPPA gives the FTC and state attorneys general the ability to investigate and levy fines for violations of the law.

Several states across the US have laws similar to COPPA on the books. The revived lawsuit cites laws in California, Colorado, Indiana, and Massachusetts to argue that Hasbro, DreamWorks, Mattel, and the Cartoon Network illegally lured children to their YouTube channels in order to target them with ads.

A federal judge in San Francisco dismissed the original lawsuit, ruling that COPPA bars individuals from suing companies for privacy violations. In a unanimous decision, the Ninth Circuit judges hearing the appeal disagreed with the district court’s reasoning. COPPA is not, in fact, the only route to enforcement, according to the ruling.

“Since the bar on ‘inconsistent’ state laws implicitly preserves ‘consistent’ state substantive laws, it would be nonsensical to assume Congress intended to simultaneously preclude all state remedies for violations of those laws,” wrote Judge Margaret McKeown.

This is not the first time YouTube has faced legal problems for how it handles children’s data. The Alphabet subsidiary was fined $170 million by the FTC and the New York state attorney general in 2019 for COPPA violations.

The case, which seeks damages for a seven-year time period between 2013 and 2020, now heads back to district court.

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