The website The Information (subscription required to get past the first paragraph) is reporting that Google has been “working to overhaul its web services so it can legally allow children to use them.” Google hasn’t commented on the report but I hope it’s true.
To comply with the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, Google, Facebook and many other services officially ban children under 13. This well-meaning law that was passed in 1998, requires services to obtain “verifiable parental consent” before a child can provide any personally identifiable information (PII). Last year the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees COPPA, issued new rules that extend the definition of PII to include IP address, location, photographs and other information not anticipated when COPPA was first enacted. The new rule also covers plug-ins and ad networks, if they have a reason to believe that the child is under 13. It also covers “persistent identifiers” that recognize a user over a period of time which are used for purposes other than “support for internal operations.” This includes tracking cookies that are capable of not only delivering advertising within a site but can also be used to track people across sites to deliver targeted information.
Ignorance is bliss
One simple way to get around COPPA is to not ask a person’s age. Unless the site has an abundance of content clearly aimed at kids (like a cartoon network), it is presumed to be a general interest site. As as long the site has no knowledge of the person’s age, it is welcome to collect information. Instagram, for example, doesn’t ask a person’s date of birth so it has no way of knowing age, even though its terms of service require the user to be at least 13. Like Google, Instagram’s owner, Facebook, does ask for date of birth when you sign up for its flagship service and bans anyone who is under 13. Google and Facebook even put cookies on machines in an effort to prevent kids who were rejected from trying again with a fake birth date.
I don’t have actual numbers when it comes to Google, but it’s pretty obvious that a lot of kids under 13 are using YouTube not just to watch videos but to contribute their own content. Gmail — another service that requires a Google account — is also popular among kids as it should be. Kids need email too.
There is data when it comes to Facebook and kids. A 2011 study that was conducted by Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research and New York University; Eszter Hargittai from Northwestern University; Jason Schultz from University of California-Berkeley; and John Palfrey from Harvard University found that 19 percent of parents of 10-year-olds, 32 percent of parents of 11-year-olds and 55 percent of parents of 12-year-olds knew that their child has a Facebook account. Sixty eight percent of the parents of Facebook users who were under 13 admitted that they helped their child to create the account. In an interview, Boyd said that many parents help their kids get a Facebook account because they want them to have access to family and friends who use the service.
While COPPA is a well-intentioned law and the new rules do bring it into the 21st century, there are unintended negative consequences. For one, it discourages companies from offering services to people under 13 or even allowing pre-teens to use services that could benefit them. Many of these services, including Facebook and Google’s YouTube, allow users to express themselves or consume media produced by others. In other words, unlike laws that restrict drinking, driving or smoking under a certain age, COPPA essentially restricts speech. And the last time I checked, the First Amendment said nothing about protecting speech rights only for people over 13.
Even though COPPA is a U.S. law, it affects people around the world since Google, Facebook and many other affected services are based here. And, arguably, COPPA could violate an International “law” of sorts that’s been ratified by every country except the U.S. and Somalia. Article 13 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states “The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.” Clearly “any other media” includes the Internet which means that, by international law, children have codified rights when it comes to what they can read and what they can say.
COPPA also discriminates against small businesses. If Google or Facebook really want to offer COPPA-compliant services to kids, they — like Disney which does offer such services — have the resources to make it happen. But there are smaller companies that have had to cancel their kid services because they couldn’t afford to jump through all of the legal hoops.
I’m not denying that there are risks associated with allowing younger children to use service like Gmail, YouTube or Facebook. Young kids need more adult supervision and need to be reminded more often about the reasons not to post certain types of information. Just as with television and other media, young people need to learn the difference between advertising and content (whether from professional media or other users) and need to learn critical thinking skills when it comes to learning what to believe or not to believe. They also need some shelter from “trolls” and online bullies and they need to balance their time between online and offline experiences.
For the most part, these issues, along with privacy concerns, affect people of all ages. And, the fact that millions of kids under 13 are already using these services needs to be considered in any risk/benefit analysis. If kids are going to be present (and they are), we need to find ways to legitimize their presence, serve their needs and provide them with the support and protection they need.
I would argue that the risk of not allowing kids under 13 on these services exceeds the risks of letting them in. If the services were able to tailor the experiences for young children, they could add additional privacy protections as well as parental control. Under the current system, all members are treated as if they are at least 13 so there is no way to provide special protections for younger kids.
How Google and Facebook could allow kids under 13
It is possible for Google, Facebook and other services to allow kids under 13 without violating or modifying COPPA, but it would require an expensive and cumbersome process of obtaining verifiable parental consent. Google could set up its own mechanism to get this consent or work with one of several “safe harbor” companies or organizations such as IKeepSafe, Children’s Advertising Review Unit, Privo and others.
What should happen
Ideally, I would like to see COPPA revised so compliance is a bit less cumbersome. One reason is because it is hard for companies to reach some parents, including those who may not speak English or whose immigration status makes them less likely to want to deal with federal authorities. There are also cases where children’s rights may be at risk because their parents are uncomfortable with their sexual orientation, religion or politics. While it’s important to protect parental rights, we also need to consider children’s rights. While it’s true that COPPA applies only to kids under 13, there are cases of pre-teen children or are legitimately exploring important issues that could make their parents uncomfortable.