Toys R Us relaunches its website where online sales are powered by Target

Toys R Us is back online, thanks to a new deal with Target. Tru Kids, the parent company that acquired the defunct toy chain following its bankruptcy, has announced the relaunch of the ToysRUs.com website as it begins the process of opening its retail stores across the U.S. As a part of its comeback strategy, the Toys R Us website’s product pages will redirect to Target.com when consumers click the “buy” button to make an online purchase.

The retailers didn’t discuss the terms of the deal, but a revenue-sharing agreement is clearly involved in a scenario like this, given the mutual benefits. Toys R Us would be able to quickly establish cash flow from the still top-ranked, well-established domain name toysrus.com, while Target could get an influx of new sales from shoppers who visited ToysRUs.com, unaware of the toy chain’s bankruptcy and relaunch.

In addition to redirecting online shoppers to Target, the new website also features articles and videos about the latest toy trends and hot brands, plus in-depth product reviews, hot toy lists, and other brand experiences. These will be available on the ToysRUs website itself. Only when a customer is ready to make a purchase will they be sent over to Target for checkout.

The site’s “Buy” button is also clearly labeled so there’s no confusion at checkout. In Target’s red-and-white brand colors, it reads “buy now at [target].com” where the word “Target” is replaced with the Target logo icon.

Target shoppers sent to ToysRUs get the same benefits they would if shopping directly — meaning, they can place orders for delivery, curbside or store order pickup, and can earn loyalty points with Target Circle, or get 5% by paying with a Target REDcard.

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The new partnership between the retailers isn’t only focused on redirecting consumers’ traditional e-commerce product sales, however.

Target says it will also fulfill online sales when Toys R Us opens up its first experiential retail stores later this fall in Houston, Texas and Paramus, New Jersey.

Tru Kids had previously announced a deal with tech startup b8ta to create a modernized toy store experience featuring things like STEAM workshops, a treehouse for kids to play in, theaters for movies and games, and a way for brands to showcase their products in a more interactive environment.

At these stores, guests who want to purchase items that aren’t available in the store itself will be able to place their order with a store associate that gets fulfilled through Target.com.

“Target’s leadership in toys, digital and fulfillment are an unbeatable platform for ToysRUs to reconnect with their fans while we introduce them to the ease and convenience of shopping at Target,” said Nikhil Nayar, senior vice president of merchandising at Target, in a statement. “By applying our capabilities in a new way with ToysRUs, we can serve even more toy shoppers, drive new growth, and build on our toy leadership,” Nayar added.

The new deal with Toys R Us isn’t the only significant toy-related partnership Target has made in recent weeks. At the end of August, the retailer announced an agreement with Disney that sees it opening mini Disney stores within its retail stores, where shoppers can buy toys, apparel, collectibles, home items, and more. Twenty-five Disney “shop-in-shops” are open now and dozens more are planned for 2020.

“Our U.S. strategy is to bring back the ToysRUs brand in a modern way through a strong experiential and content-rich omnichannel concept,” Tru Kids CEO Richard Barry, a former Toys R Us exec, in a statement about the Target partnership.

“The foundation of that strategy requires the help of a retail industry leader and Target is the ideal retailer to support a new ToysRUs shopping experience, which is designed to provide families with endless ways to discover, play and enjoy toys. Target will help us deliver on that experience with its toy assortment, digital strength and ability to deliver orders to shoppers in a matter of hours,” he said.

 

YouTube to spend $100M on original children’s content

Creators of child-directed content will be financially impacted by the changes required by the FTC settlement, YouTube admitted today. The settlement will end the use of children’s personal data for ad-targeting purposes, the FTC said. To address creators’ concerns over their businesses, YouTube also announced a $100 million fund to invest in original children’s content.

The fund, distributed over three years, will be dedicated to the creation of “thoughtful” original content for YouTube and YouTube Kids globally, the company says.

“We know these changes will have a significant business impact on family and kids creators who have been building both wonderful content and thriving businesses, so we’ve worked to give impacted creators four months to adjust before changes take effect on YouTube,” wrote YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki in a blog post. “We recognize this won’t be easy for some creators and are committed to working with them through this transition and providing resources to help them better understand these changes.”

YouTube plans to share more information about the fund and its plans in the weeks ahead.

In addition, YouTube said today it’s “rethinking” its overall approach to the YouTube kids and family experience.

This could go toward fixing some of the other problems raised by the consumer advocacy groups who prompted the FTC investigation. The groups weren’t entirely pleased by the settlement, as they believed it was only scratching the surface of YouTube’s issue.

“It’s extremely disappointing that the FTC isn’t requiring more substantive changes or doing more to hold Google accountable for harming children through years of illegal data collection,” said Josh Golin, the executive director for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), a group that spearheaded the push for an investigation. “A plethora of parental concerns about YouTube – from inappropriate content and recommendations to excessive screen time – can all be traced to Google’s business model of using data to maximize watch time and ad revenue,” he added.

Google already began to crack down on some of these concerns, independent of an FTC requirement, however.

To tackle the scourge of inappropriate content targeting minors, YouTube in August expanded its child safety policies to remove — instead of only restrict, as it did before — any “misleading family content, including videos that target younger minors and their families, those that contain sexual themes, violence, obscene, or other mature themes not suitable for younger audiences.”

Separately, YouTube aims to address the issues raised around promotional content in videos.

For example, a video with kids playing with toys could be an innocent home movie or it could involve a business agreement between the video creator and a brand to showcase the products in exchange for free merchandise or direct payment.

The latter should be labeled as advertising, as required by YouTube, but that’s often not the case. And even when ads are disclosed, it’s impossible for young children to know the difference between when they’re being entertained and when they’re being marketed to.

There are also increasing concerns over the lack of child labor laws when it comes to children performing in YouTube videos, which has prompted some parents to exploit their kids for views or even commit child abuse.

YouTube’s “rethinking” of its kids’ experience should also include whether or not it should continue to incentivize the creation of these “kid influencer” and YouTube family videos, where little girls’ and boys’ childhoods have become the source of parents’ incomes.

YouTube’s re-evaluation of the kids’ experience comes at a time when the FTC is also thinking of how to better police general audience platforms on the web, where some content is viewed by kids. The regulator is hosting an October workshop to discuss this issue, where it hopes to come up with ways to encourage others to develop kid-safe zones, too.

Ahead of FTC ruling, YouTube Kids is getting its own website

Ahead of the official announcement of an FTC settlement which could force YouTube to direct under-13-year-old users to a separate experience for YouTube’s kid-friendly content, the company has quietly announced plans to launch its YouTube Kids service on the web. Previously, parents would have to download the YouTube Kids app to a mobile device in order to access the filtered version of YouTube.

By bringing YouTube Kids to the web, the company is prepared for the likely outcome of an FTC settlement which would require the company to implement an age-gate on its site, then redirect under-13-year-olds to a separate kid-friendly experience.

In addition, YouTube Kids is gaining a new filter which will allow parents to set the content to being preschooler-appropriate.

The announcement, published to the YouTube Help forums, was first spotted by Android Police.

It’s unclear if YouTube was intentionally trying to keep these changes from being picked up on by a larger audience (or the press) by publishing the news to a forum instead of its official YouTube blog. (The company tells us it publishes a lot of news the forum site. Sure, okay. But with an FTC settlement looming, it seems an odd destination for such a key announcement.)

It’s also worth noting that, around the same time as the news was published, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki posted her quarterly update for YouTube creators.

The update is intended to keep creators abreast of what’s in store for YouTube and its community. But this quarter, her missive spoke solely about the value in being an open platform, and didn’t touch on anything related to kids content or the U.S. regulator’s investigation.

However, it’s precisely YouTube’s position on “openness” that concerns parents when it comes to their kids watching YouTube videos. The platform’s (almost) “anything goes” nature means kids can easily stumble upon content that’s too adult, controversial, hateful, fringe, or offensive.

The YouTube Kids app is meant to offer a safer destination, but YouTube isn’t manually reviewing each video that finds its way there. That has led to inappropriate and disturbing content slipping through the cracks on numerous occasions, and eroding parents’ trust.

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Because many parents don’t believe YouTube Kids’ algorithms can filter content appropriately, the company last fall introduced the ability for parents to whitelist specific videos or channels in the Kids app. It also rolled out a feature that customized the app’s content for YouTube’s older users, ages 8 through 12. This added gaming content and music videos.

Now, YouTube is further breaking up its “Younger” content level filter, which was previously 8 and under, into two parts. Starting now, “Younger” applies to ages 5 through 7, while the new “Preschool” filter is for the age 4 and under group. The latter will focus on videos that promote “creativity, playfulness, learning, and exploration,” says YouTube.

Above: the content filter before

YouTube confirmed to TechCrunch that its forum announcement is accurate, but the company would not say when the YouTube Kids web version would go live, beyond “this week.”

The YouTube Kids changes are notable because they signal that YouTube is getting things in place before an FTC settlement announcement that will impact how the company handles kids content and its continued use by young children.

It’s possible that YouTube will be fined by the FTC for its violations of COPPA, as Musical.ly (TikTok) was earlier this year. One report, citing unnamed sources, says the FTC’s YouTube settlement has, in fact, already been finalized and includes a multimillion-dollar fine.

YouTube will also likely be required to implement an age-gate on its site and in its apps that will direct under-13-year-olds to the YouTube Kids platform instead of YouTube proper. The settlement may additionally require YouTube to stop targeting ads on videos aimed at children, as has been reported by Bloomberg. 

We probably won’t see the FTC issuing a statement about its ruling ahead of this Labor Day weekend, but it may do so in advance of its October workshop focused on refining the COPPA regulation — an event that has the regulator looking for feedback on how to properly handle sites like YouTube.

 

 

Roku launches a Kids & Family section on The Roku Channel, plus parental controls

Roku’s home entertainment hub, The Roku Channel, is expanding into kids’ programming. The company this morning announced plans to aggregate kids and family movies and TV alongside the channel’s other content, including its free, ad-supported movies and television, live TV, and subscriptions. In addition to the launch of the new “Kids & Family” section on The Roku Channel, Roku is also rolling out Parental Control features to give parents more control over what their kids can watch when accessing the channel.

The latter — while useful for families who don’t want the kids stumbling upon their HBO or Cinemax subscriptions — will also be a hindrance when the parents go to watch their own shows in The Roku Channel, due to Roku’s current lack of user profiles.

Meanwhile, the new kids section is not home to original content, but rather takes advantage of Roku’s ability to aggregate the streaming content on its own platform — including both free content from other channels and digital creators, as well as kid-friendly content from the family’s paid subscriptions.

At launch, the Kids & Family section will offer 7,000 free, ad-supported TV episodes and movies from 20 partners, including All Spark, A Hasbro Company, DHX Media, Happy Kids TV, Lionsgate, Mattel, Moonbug, and pocket.watch, and others. This will bring a mix of classic franchises and favorite characters to the channel, like Care Bears, The Cat in the Hat, Leapfrog, Little Baby Bum, My Little Pony, Rev & Roll, Super Mario Brothers, Thomas & Friends and more. 

This content will be mixed in with live, linear streams from Moonbug, pocket.watch, and XUMO-powered partners Ameba, BatteryPop, and KidGenius. There will also be five exclusive episodes of Ryan’s World by pocket.watch available.

In addition, the new section can pull in premium kids content from services like Blue Ant Media’s ZooMoo, CONtv, Dove Channel, HBO, Hopster, NOGGIN, Starz, or Up Faith.

That allows access to more well-known kids brands, like Bubble Guppies, Dora the Explorer, PAW Patrol, Peppa Pig, and family-friendly movies, including Adventures of Elmo in Groucholand, Muppets Take Manhattan and more.

In total, there are nearly 30 partners participating in the Kids & Family section. Notably absent, however, are top sources for kids’ shows, like Netflix and Hulu. These larger streaming services want to own the user experience end-to-end and collect their own data.

Screen Shot 2019 08 19 at 9.12.49 AMRoku says it will collect “non-user level data” from the new section, in order to see, in aggregate, which programs are popular. But it will not use data to personalize the experience for kids, target kids with ads, or make recommendations.

Instead, the content in the Kids & Family section is organized by age range, character, and theme in an interface that resembles Netflix’s Kids’ profile layout.

The ad load is also lighter than elsewhere on The Roku Channel, the company says.

“For The Roku Channel overall, we have on average, approximately half of the advertising time of traditional ad-supported linear TV. So it’s a really light ad load. And we think that something’s really resonated with users. When we look at a Kids & Family viewing experience, we want to even further reduce that advertising time. So we’re taking it down to 40% of the advertising time on traditional linear,” says Roku’s Vice President of Programming Rob Holmes.

He adds that the advertisers are kid-appropriate, and are vetted and served internally by Roku.

Ad revenue is the only way the new section will be monetized. Roku tells us the premium kids content will only be displayed to existing subscribers, as it’s not in the business of trying to upsell to children.

The launch follows several other recent developments for The Roku Channel, now one of Roku’s top five channels and a big selling point for Roku devices and TVs.

Since its 2017 launch which focused on aggregating free movies, the company has expanded into newssports, TV shows and other entertainment offerings both from traditional studios and digital networks, as well as paid subscriptions from networks like HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, Starz, EPIX and more.

Roku closed out its second quarter with 30.5 million active accounts, up by 1.4 million from the prior quarter, and revenue up 59% year-over-year to $250.1 million. The company’s platform business is now the primary revenue driver, up 86% year-over-year to reach $167.7 million in the quarter. Users streamed 9.4 billion hours of content on Roku in Q2.

Media companies have been heavily investing in kids’ programming, especially in the cord-cutting era, which gives Roku a large library to tap into. However, the biggest names in kids’ streaming — like Netflix and soon, Disney (with Disney+) — will not participate in aggregated sections like this, which ultimately limits their ability to become a true one-stop-shop for everything you want to stream.

The Roku Channel is rolling out in the U.S. today, on Roku devices, the web, the Roku mobile app, and select Samsung smart TVs.

WW launches Kurbo, a hotly debated ‘healthy eating’ app aimed at kids

Kurbo Health, a mobile weight loss solution designed to tackle childhood obesity which was acquired for $3 million by WW (the rebranded Weight Watchers), has now relaunched as Kurbo by WW — and not without some controversy. Pre-acquisition, the startup was focused on democratizing access to research, behavior modification techniques and other tools that were previously only available through expensive programs run by hospitals or other centers.

As a WW product, however, there are concerns that parents putting kids on “diets” will lead to increased anxiety, stress and disordered eating — in other words, Kurbo will make the problem worse, rather than solving it.

The Kurbo app first launched at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2014. Founder Joanna Strober, a venture investor and board member at BlueNile and eToys, explained she was driven to develop Kurbo after struggling to help her own child. Mainly, she came across programs that cost money, were held at inconvenient times for working parents or were dubbed “obesity centers” — with which no child wanted to be associated.

Her child found eventual success with the Stanford Pediatric Weight Loss Program, but this involved in-person visits and pen-and-paper documentation.

Together with Kurbo Health’s co-founder Thea Runyan, who has a Master’s in Public Health and had worked at the Stanford center for 12 years, the team realized the opportunity to bring the research to more people by creating a mobile, data-driven program for kids and families.

They licensed Stanford’s program, which then became Kurbo Health.

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The company raised funds from investors, including Signia Ventures, Data Collective, Bessemer Venture Partners and Promus Ventures, as well as angels like Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube; Greg Badros, former VP Engineering and Product at Facebook; and Esther Dyson (EdVenture), among others.

At launch, the app was designed to encourage healthier eating patterns without parents actually being able to see the child’s food diary. Instead, parents set a reward that was doled out simply for the child’s participation. That is, the parents couldn’t see what the child ate, specifically, which allowed them to stop playing “food police.”

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Unlike adult-oriented apps like MyFitnessPal or Noom, kids wouldn’t see metrics like calories, sugars, carbs and fat, but instead had their food choices categorized as “red,” “yellow” and “green.” However, no foods were designated as “off limits,” as it instead encouraged fewer reds and more greens.

The program also included an option for virtual coaching.

As a WW product, the program has remained somewhat the same. There are still the color-coded food categorizations and optional live coaching, via a subscription. Parents are still involved, now with updates after coaching calls or the option to join coaching sessions. The app also now includes tools that teach meditation, recipe videos and games that focus on healthy lifestyles. Subscribers gain access to one-on-one 15-minute virtual sessions with coaches whose professional backgrounds include counseling, fitness and other nutrition-related fields.

However, there are also things like a place to track measurements, goals like “lose weight” and Snapchat-style “tracking streaks.”

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While the original program was designed to be a solution for parents with children who would have otherwise had to seek expensive medical help for obesity issues, the association with parent company and acquirer WW has led to some backlash.

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Today, body positivity and fat acceptance movements have gone mainstream, encouraging people to be confident in their own bodies and not hate themselves for being overweight. The general thinking is that when people respect themselves, they become more likely to care for themselves — and this will extend to making healthier food and lifestyle choices.

Meanwhile, food tracking and dieting programs often lead to failure and shame — especially when people start to think of some food as “bad” or a “cheat,” instead of just something to be eaten in moderation. And excessive tracking can even lead to disordered eating patterns for some people, studies have found.

In addition, WW has already been under fire for extending its weight loss program to teens 13-17 for free, and the launch of what’s seen as a “dieting app for kids” as part of WW’s broader family-focused agenda certainly isn’t helping the backlash.

That said, when positive reinforcement is used correctly, it can work for weight loss. As TIME reported, the red-yellow-green traffic light approach was effective in adults in one independent study by Massachusetts General Hospital and another presented at the Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference worked in children, with 84% reducing their BMI after 21 weeks.

“According to recent reports from the World Health Organization, childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. This is a global public health crisis that needs to be addressed at scale,” said Joanna Strober, co-founder of Kurbo, in a statement about the launch. “As a mom whose son struggled with his weight at a young age, I can personally attest to the importance and significance of having a solution like Kurbo by WW, which is inherently designed to be simple, fun and effective,” she said.

That said, it’s one thing for a parent to work in conjunction with a doctor to help a child with a health issue, but parents who foist a food tracking app on their kids may not get the same results. In fact, they may even cause the child to develop eating disorders that weren’t present before. (And no, just because a child is overweight, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re suffering from an “eating disorder.”)

There can be many other factors that could be causing a child’s unexpected weight gain, beyond just their interest in eating high-calorie foods. This includes health ailments, hormone or chemical imbalances, medication side effects, puberty and other growth spurts (which can’t always be determined through BMI changes, which are tracked in-app), genetics, and more.

Parents may also be part of the problem, by simply bringing unhealthy food into the house because it’s more affordable or because they aren’t aware of things like hidden sugars or how to avoid them. Or perhaps they’re putting money into a child’s school lunch account, without realizing the child is able to spend it on vending machine snacks, sodas or off-menu items like pizza and chips.

The child may also suffer from health problems like asthma or allergies that have become an underlying issue, making it more difficult for them to be active.

In other words, a program like this is something that parents should approach with caution. And it’s certainly one where the child’s doctor should be involved at every stage — including in determining whether or not an app is actually needed at all.

Nike launches a subscription service for kids’ shoes, Nike Adventure Club

Just in time for back-to-school shopping, Nike today officially announced its entry into the subscription service market with the launch of a “sneaker club” for kids called Nike Adventure Club. The new program is specifically designed to make shopping easier for parents who struggle to keep up with their quickly growing children’s shoe needs. Instead of taking kids to the store and trying on pair after pair to try to find something the child likes, the new Nike Adventure Club will instead ship anywhere from four pairs to a dozen pairs of shoes per year, depending on which subscription tier parents choose.

The club serves kids from sizes 4C to 7Y — or roughly ages 2 to 10.

Club pricing begins at $20 per month which will ship out new shoes every 90 days. For $30 per month, kids get 6 pairs per year. And for $50 per month, kids will get new shoes every month — a choice that may be excessive except for the most active kids who were their sneakers every day, play sports, or have a tendency to wreck their shoes in short order.

However, even the minimum of four pairs per year may be too frequent for some parents of older kids.

According to the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society, toddlers under 16 months grow more than one-half a foot size every two months. From 16 to 24 months, they grow an average of one-half a foot size every three months. From 24 to 36 months, it’s one-half a foot size every four months. Then things slow down.

Children over three years old grow one-half a foot size every 4 to 6 months. That means some older kids only need to replace their shoes twice per year, outside of excessive wear and tear.

That said, Nike allows parents to upgrade or downgrade their subscription at any time, or even put it on pause.

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Once signed up, parents will receive an email with a selection of over 100 styles of Nike and Converse shoes to choose from, which they can review with their kids. They then pick which shoes they want to receive, and these are shipped to the home in a box with the child’s name on it. This box also includes an “adventure kit” filled with activities and games for parents to do with their kids, stickers, plus a small gift. The kit is created in partnership with the nonprofit KaBoom, which is focused on encouraging kids to lead healthy lifestyles.

If the shoes are the wrong size, exchanges are free within a week of delivery.

Perhaps the best part of the program is the recycling component.

Twice a year, Nike will ship out a prepaid bag where parents can send back their kids’ worn shoes, which will either be donated to families in need if in good condition or recycled through Nike Grind, a program that separates out the rubber, foam, leather, and textile blends, grinds them into granules, and incorporates those into new products including footwear, apparel, and play surfaces.

“We see Nike Adventure Club sits as having a unique place within Nike, and not just for it being the first sneaker club for kids,” says Dave Cobban, VP of Nike Adventure Club, in a statement about the launch. “It provides a wide range of options for kids, while at the same time, it removes a friction point for parents who are shopping on their behalf.”

Nike has been testing the program since 2017, when it was known as Easy Kicks. The test reached 10,000 members, the company said.

Nike isn’t the first to launch a subscription focused on kids — and big retailers have taken note. This year, Foot Locker took a minority stake in kids’ clothing subscription Rockets of Awesome and Walmart partnered with children’s clothing startup Kidbox.

Stitch Fix also offers a kids’ styling service. And Amazon offers a try-before-you-buy shopping service without a subscription, Prime Wardrobe. Amazon’s variation offers both girls and boys options where parents can fill a box with apparel, shoes, and accessories for home try-on and easy returns.

Nike’s Adventure Club is launching today but is easing in new customers via a waitlist option.

Online community theAsianparent raises Series C to add e-commerce and expand into new markets

TheAsianparent, Southeast Asia’s largest online community and content platform for mothers with 23.5 million monthly active users, announced today that it has raised a Series C led by Fosun Group, the Chinese conglomerate. The amount was undisclosed, but a person familiar with the deal says it was between $10 million to $30 million. E-commerce giant JD.com also participated, along with ATM Capital, Redbadge Pacific and returning investors Global Grand Leisure and WHG Holdings.

The new funding will be used on theAsianparent’s new e-commerce business and its expansion into new markets in Asia and Africa, focusing first on Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. Roshni Mahtani, the founder and CEO of Tickled Media, theAsianparent’s publisher, tells TechCrunch it looks for countries with high birth rates but relatively few online resources and communities for new parents. The site will have its own branding for African markets and launch first in Nigeria with localized content and a social network.

TheAsianparent, which currently has a team of 180 people across 12 countries and is headquartered in Singapore, will focus on building its e-commerce business in Asia markets first, specifically Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore, with JD.com providing advice on things like logistics. TheAsianparent will start selling products through its site and launch its own direct-to-consumer brand later this year.

“The way I see it is that for media companies to be relevant, you need to have content, community and commerce, so that it becomes very easy for consumers to trust you for content and community, and also be able to buy products that you recommend and that have been created for their communities,” says Mahtani, who launched theAsianparent as a parenting blog in 2009.

TheAsianparent’s mobile app, which includes articles, community features and baby development trackers, launched in September 2018, has been installed 1.6 million times so far. Mahtani says the theAsianparent had a traffic growth rate of about 70 percent before funding and expects it to increase by a much faster rate now. It is expected to make $10 million in revenue this year and reach $100 million within the next five years.

In a prepared statement, Wilson Jin, the chairman of Fosun RZ Capital, said “TheAsianparent, as the largest maternal and child community in Southeast Asia, has won the trust of young mothers in Southeast Asia and has a huge commercial space. In the past few years, theAsianparent has fully verified its business development and product evolution capabilities , it is an outstanding entrepreneurial team.”

U.S. Senator and consumer advocacy groups urge FTC to take action on YouTube’s alleged COPPA violations

The groups behind a push to get the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate YouTube’s alleged violation of children’s privacy law, COPPA, have today submitted a new letter to the FTC that lays out the appropriate sanctions the groups want the FTC to now take. The letter comes shortly after news broke that the FTC was in the final stages of its probe into YouTube’s business practices regarding this matter.

They’re joined in pressing the FTC to act by COPPA co-author, Senator Ed Markey, who penned a letter of his own, which was also submitted today.

The groups’ formal complaint with the FTC was filed back in April 2018. The coalition, which then included 20 child advocacy, consumer and privacy groups, had claimed YouTube doesn’t get parental consent before collecting the data from children under the age of 13 — as is required by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, also known as COPPA.

The organizations said, effectively, that YouTube was hiding behind its terms of service which claims that YouTube is “not intended for children under 13.”

This simply isn’t true, as any YouTube user knows. YouTube is filled with videos that explicitly cater to children, from cartoons to nursery rhymes to toy ads — the latter which often come about by way of undisclosed sponsorships between toy makers and YouTube stars. The video creators will excitedly unbox or demo toys they received for free or were paid to feature, and kids just eat it all up.

In addition, YouTube curates much of its kid-friendly content into a separate YouTube Kids app that’s designed for the under-13 crowd — even preschoolers.

Meanwhile, YouTube treats children’s content like any other. That means targeted advertising and commercial data collection are taking place, the groups’ complaint states. YouTube’s algorithms also recommend videos and autoplay its suggestions — a practice that led to kids being exposed to inappropriate content in the past.

Today, two of the leading groups behind the original complaint — the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) — are asking the FTC to impose the maximum civil penalties on YouTube because, as they’ve said:

Google had actual knowledge of both the large number of child-directed channels on YouTube and the large numbers of children using YouTube. Yet, Google collected personal information from nearly 25 million children in the U.S over a period of years, and used this data to engage in very sophisticated digital marketing techniques. Google’s wrongdoing allowed it to profit in two different ways: Google has not only made a vast amount of money by using children’s personal information as part of its ad networks to target advertising, but has also profited from advertising revenues from ads on its YouTube channels that are watched by children.

The groups are asking the FTC to impose a 20-year consent degree on YouTube.

They want the FTC to order YouTube to destroy all data from children under 13, including any inferences drawn from the data, that’s in Google’s possession. YouTube should also stop collecting data from anyone under 13, including anyone viewing a channel or video directed at children. Kids’ ages also need to be identified so they can be prevented from accessing YouTube.

Meanwhile, the groups suggest that all the channels in the Parenting and Family lineup, plus any other channels or video directed at children, be removed from YouTube and placed into a separate platform for children. (e.g. the YouTube Kids app).

This is something YouTube is already considering, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal last week.

This separate kids platform would have a variety restrictions, including no commercial data collection; no links out to other sites or online services; no targeted marketing; no product or brand integration; no influencer marketing; and even no recommendations or autoplay.

The removal of autoplaying videos and recommendations, in particular, would be a radical change to how YouTube operates, but one that could protect kids from inappropriate content that slips in. It’s also a change that some employees inside YouTube itself were vying for, according to The WSJ’s report. 

The groups also urge the FTC to require Google to fund educational campaigns around the true nature of Google’s data-driven marketing systems, admit publicly that it violated the law, and submit to annual audits to ensure its ongoing compliance. They want Google to commit $100 million to establish a fund that supports the production of noncommercial, high-quality and diverse content for kids.

Finally, the groups are asking that Google faces the maximum possible civil penalties —  $42,530 per violation, which could be counted as either per child or per day. This monetary relief needs to be severe, the groups argue, so Google and YouTube will be deterred from ever violating COPPA in the future.

While this laundry list of suggestions is more like a wish list of what the ideal resolution would look like, it doesn’t mean that the FTC will follow through on all these suggestions.

However, it seems likely that the Commission would at least require YouTube to delete the improperly collected data and isolate the kids’ YouTube experience in some way. After all, that’s precisely what it just did with Tik Tok (previously Musical.ly) which earlier this year paid a record $5.7 million fine for its own COPPA violations. It also had to implement an age gate where under-13 kids were restricted from publishing content.

The advocacy groups aren’t the only ones making suggestions to the FTC.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) also sent the FTC a letter today about YouTube’s violations of COPPA — a piece of legislation that he co-authored.

In his letter, he urges the FTC take a similar set of actions, saying:

“I am concerned that YouTube has failed to comply with COPPA. I therefore, urge the Commission to use all necessary resources to investigate YouTube, demand that YouTube pay all monetary penalties it owes as a result of any legal violations, and instruct YouTube to institute policy changes that put children’s well-being first.”

His suggestions are similar to those being pushed by the advocacy groups. They include demands for YouTube to delete the children’s data and cease data collection on those under 13; implement an age gate on YouTube to come into compliance with COPPA; prohibit targeted and influencer marketing; offer detailed explanations of what data is collected if for “internal purposes;” undergo a yearly audit; provide documentation of compliance upon request; and establish a fund for noncommercial content.

He also wants Google to sponsor a consumer education campaign warning parents that no one under 13 should use YouTube and want Google to be prohibited from launching any new child-directed product until it’s been reviewed by an independent panel of experts.

The FTC’s policy doesn’t allow it to confirm or deny nonpublic investigations. YouTube hasn’t yet commented on the letters.

Google’s new media literacy program teaches kids how to spot disinformation and fake news

Google announced this morning it’s expanding its two-year-old digital safety and citizenship curriculum for children, “Be Internet Awesome,” to now include media literacy — specifically, the ability to identify so-called “fake news” and other false content. The company is launching six new media literacy activities for the curriculum that will help teach kids things like how to avoid a phishing attack, what bots are, how to verify that information is credible, how to evaluate sources, how to identify disinformation online, spot fake URLs, and more.

The new media literacy classes — which frankly, some adults should read through as well — were developed in collaboration with Anne Collier, executive director of The Net Safety Collaborative, and Faith Rogow, Ph.D., co-author of The Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy and a co-founder of the National Association for Media Literacy Education.

“We need the right tools and resources to help kids make the most of technology, and while good digital safety and citizenship resources exist for families, more can be done for media literacy,” writes educator and teachmama.com founder Amy Mascott, in an announcement on Google’s blog today. “I’ve worked alongside dozens of educators who believe that media literacy is essential to safety and citizenship in the digital age, but agree that it’s a topic that can be tough to cover.”

The courses offer kids not only instruction, but also a combination of activities and discussion starters aimed at helping them develop critical thinking skills when it comes to pursuing online resources.

Its overall theme, the course material explains, is to help kids understand that the content they find online isn’t necessarily true or reliable  — and it could even involve malicious efforts to steal their information or identity.

The kids learn how phishing works, why it’s a threat, and how to avoid it. They then practice their anti-phishing skills by acting out and discussing reactions to suspicious online texts, posts, friend requests, pictures, and emails.

In the bots section, they learn about how A.I. works and compare and contrast talking to a bot versus talking to a human being.

In the following media literacy sections, kids learn what a credible source is, how to figure out what a source’s motives are, and learn that “just because a person is an expert on one thing doesn’t make them an expert on everything.”

In a related classroom activity, the kids pick a question related to something they’ve seen online or are learning in class and try to get the answers online, while figuring out if the sources are credible.

They also learn to fact check credible sources with other credible sources as a way to look for a variety of sources.

“If you can’t find a variety of credible sources that agree with the source you are checking, you shouldn’t believe that source,” the curriculum explains.

Kids are additionally taught how to spot fake information using clues like deceptive URLs as well as checking the sources for credibility. They’re told that some people don’t know how to do this, and share fake information online — which is how it spreads.

“There are a lot of people and groups who are so passionate about what they believe that they twist the truth to get us to agree with them. When the twisted information is disguised as a news story, that’s disinformation,” the curriculum says.

Kids are also informed that some of the fake news organizations are hard to spot because they use names that sound like they’re real.

And the course delves into various tricks some websites use — like using photos that don’t relate to the story, using clickbait words like “shocking” or “outrageous” which they know make people curious,” using bold, underline, exclamation points or ALL CAPS, to convince you to agree with them.

This section concludes with an online game, Reality River, that asks kids to use their best judgment in order to cross the river rapids. This takes place in Interland, the game developed as a companion to Google’s digital safety and citizenship curriculum.

The overall goal of the media literacy course is to encourage the kids to make checking all news and information a habit — not just those they think seem suspicious.

Google says the new curriculum is available online for both teachers and families alike to use, and are offered in English, Spanish and eight other languages.

Google is partnering with the YMCA and National PTA across multiple cities to host online safety workshops, as well.

 

 

 

Alexa’s voice apps for kids can now offer purchases that parents approve

Amazon will now allow developers to offer premium content for purchase in Alexa skills aimed at children. The company on Friday introduced new tools for building skills with in-app purchases that requires the Amazon account holder — typically mom or dad — to approve or decline the requested purchase via a text or email.

In-skill purchasing was first introduced to all U.S. Alexa developers last year, and more recently became available to international developers. But like any app aimed at children, Alexa skills needed to offer a purchase approval workflow for those in its kids’ category, or it would risk unapproved purchases initiated by younger users.

That’s where these new developer tools come in.

Now, developers can create premium kid skills using either the Alexa Skills Kit Command-Line Interface (ASK CLI) or the Alexa Developer Console. Other tools allow the skills to route purchase requests to the account holder over SMS or email. The account holder then has 24 hours to act on the request, or the request is automatically canceled.

The premium content can come in the form of either one-time purchases or subscriptions, says Amazon.

A group of developers had early access to the tools and already added premium content to their own kid skills. This includes the grand prize winner from one of Amazon’s developer contests, Kids Court; plus You Choose Superman Adventures; Travel Quest; Animal Sounds; and Master Swords.

Parents who don’t want their kids asking to buy anything have two options to opt out of all this.

They can disable the feature in the Alexa app under Settings -> Alexa Account -> Voice Purchasing -> Kid Skills Purchasing. Meanwhile, FreeTime on Alexa customers, which comes with the Echo Dot Kids Edition, won’t receive offers to purchase premium content. And those who upgrade to FreeTime Unlimited will get much of this premium content included with their subscription.

The addition of premium purchases to kid skills comes at a challenging time for Amazon.

Amazon updated its Echo Dot for kids this week with new designs and other under-the-hood features, as new lawsuits over Alexa’s children’s privacy violations were filed. The suits say Amazon recorded children’s voices without consent.

As a part of its updated Echo Dot for kids experience, Amazon said it worked with the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) and various industry groups to rebuild FreeTime on Alexa so that it adheres U.S. children’s privacy law, COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act).

Amazon now restricts Alexa skills from accessing or collecting personal information from children and offers ways for parents to delete children’s voice recordings, it says.

But its changes to the Kids Edition Echo smart speaker and related feature set don’t fully address the plaintiffs’ allegations.

According to Amazon’s announcement this week, parents can now review and delete recordings through the Alexa app or the Alexa Privacy Hub, and they can contact Customer Service to request deletion of their child’s profile. However, the lawsuits said the way Amazon manages recordings — by asking parents to take manual action — is not ideal. They point out that Apple’s Siri only stores recordings for a short period of time and then automatically deletes them.

In addition, CNET found that Amazon may retain the text transcripts even when people delete the recordings themselves.

Privacy regulations take time to catch up to the pace of technology and today’s issues around how smart speakers should operate in family homes where children are present is another example of that problem. While parents are the ones buying and installing these devices, many weren’t aware that Alexa’s intelligence is aided not only by algorithms and AI, but by human beings on the other end who listen to recordings, check them for errors, then use this data to improve how Alexa works.

Of course, there are people who are less concerned about this sort of thing and just enjoy using the device regardless of its potential invasiveness. They may appreciate the ability to upgrade their skills and support favorite developers’ efforts, especially if the family enjoys the skills together or they feel they add value.

Amazon is not offering all developers the ability to sell through their kids skills at present. Instead, interested developers who want to build kid skills with purchases can fill out a form that tells Amazon about their plans and the company will reach out if the application is selected.