As is often the case with new product rollouts, “leaks” this summer suggest Google is planning on building versions of its popular services that will be intentionally directed at children under 13 starting in late 2014 triggering COPPA compliance issues. These leaks are now being confirmed as Google representatives give interviews to various outlets indicating the first of these new offerings will appear in 2015. The question is whether or not this move by Google represents the beginning of a fundamental shift by large web companies in relation to protecting the privacy of children under 13 online?
If COPPA has one large flaw, it is the age gateway system. While online providers can use these gateways to theoretically filter out kids under 13 from registering and using general audience online properties, it is also an accepted fact that large numbers of kids under 13 simply lie about their age to get around such filters. In building “kid versions” of its services, Google is the first company to seriously publicly acknowledge that age filters are ineffective and provide a potential solution.
While most commentators have a favorable impression of this move by Google, just as many are questioning the motivations of the company. In a USA Today article, Pavni Diwanji, the vice president of engineering spoke to the motivation,
“The big motivator inside the company is everyone is having kids, so there’s a push to change our products to be fun and safe for children.”
This certainly seems like a noble intention, but COPPA has been with us for over 15 years and surely Google babies were being born during this period. It should also be noted that publicly traded companies that must report to shareholders every quarter rarely take on large projects that have little revenue potential. Could Google be attempting to build brand awareness with children who it hopes will come to trust the Google name and buy its products over the next 70 plus years?
Nah, it couldn’t be that.
Whatever the motivation of Google executives, the decision to roll out these new sites and services directed at children under 13 puts serious pressure on other major online companies. Facebook, in particular, will find itself in an uncomfortable position since it clearly has a problem with kids under 13 using the site and has the resources available to build out a section to cater to the under 13 market.
Ultimately, the move by Google to stop hiding behind the compromised age gateway concept should be viewed positively. There is little doubt that whatever Google rolls out will be open to criticism, but the company deserves credit for being the first major online entity to abandon what may be a strong technical legal position with age gateways and look for a practical solution to the problem of children fibbing about their age to get onto YouTube and other Google properties.
Let’s hope Google’s effort leads to similar moves by companies such as Facebook.
Richard A. Chapo, Esq.