Leaks coming out of Google suggest the company is developing a system that will allow parents to set up shared accounts with their children for YouTube and other Google services. These accounts will reportedly have a dashboard configuration parents can use to control the collection of personal information associated with their children.
The Google leaks are meeting with two expected reactions.
- The development is a good move since millions of children under 13 already have accounts with YouTube and Google after lying about their ages during the registration process; or
- You can’t trust Google so this is a negative development.
Face Up to Reality
Do children under 13 have accounts on large general audience video and social media sites? Studies suggest this is certainly the case. Facebook admits it terminates roughly 20,000 accounts a day opened by users under 13. This number is hardly surprising since studies have found many parents help their children sign up for Facebook notwithstanding the 13 or older requirement.
As for YouTube, one needs to look no farther than certain videos to surmise children under 13 have opened accounts in significant numbers. A search for “Dora the Explorer” results in listings including one particular video titled “Dora the Explorer Fairytale Adventure 2014.” The video has over 27 million views. Dora targets children ages 2 to 6. Logically, children under 13 comprise many of the 27 million views for the video.
Given that children are clearly ignoring the 13 or older prohibition for many sites, one can argue Google’s decision to create a system for kids is a vast improvement over the current situation. Of course, this assumes parents can trust Google.
Not A Great Track Record
Google’s track record on the topic of privacy is less than stellar. Well known violations of privacy laws and regulations as well as consumer protection laws include:
- $22.5 million fine for ignoring security settings designed to prevent advertisers from tracking users with cookies in Apple’s Safari web browser;
- $7 million fine for violating privacy provisions during Street View mapping project when Google collected passwords, e-mail and other personal information from unsuspecting computer users;
- Another $1 million fine in Italy for the same practices,
- $1.2 million fine for violating privacy laws of Spain; and
- Paying $8.5 million to settle a lawsuit alleging sharing user information with third parties without consent.
[Click here for an interesting, long rap sheet of alleged Google misconduct on privacy issues.]
With a reputation for playing fast and loose with user privacy, what hope is there Google will provide a transparent COPPA compliant system that gives parents real control? There is no way to know this without seeing the system. The system may set the standard for other large user-generated content sites, or it may be an abomination of loopholes.
It would seem at first glance that Google does deserve credit even at this early stage for apparently spending the resources and time to pursue this new “accounts for kids” system. When a Dora the Explorer video on YouTube has 27 million views, it is hardly a leap to suggest the goals of COPPA are not being met. This isn’t to say Google or YouTube employees have actual knowledge of these children, but it is a stunningly large number. If the rumors of a new Google system for kids are true, then the company is moving out from behind the protection of what many view as a technical legal loophole.
At its core, Google is the largest online advertising placement and data collection firm in the world. Google didn’t create the leading search engine to provide users with the best possible results for particular searches. It created the most popular search engine for the purpose of selling advertising space [Adwords] for the highest possible return on investment. There is nothing wrong with this approach, which most would argue is the very definition of capitalism.
The very nature of capitalism, however, also begs a simple question – what is in it for Google with these new kids accounts? At this time, there is no pressing reason to tie up the resources necessary to create a parental oversight system. The lack of third party motivation suggests Google has a particular benefit in mind, one that no doubt involves some form of monetization. In blunt terms, it is difficult to see how a for-profit company that reports to shareholders each quarter can justify the expense of this new system unless doing so provides a significant financial return to shareholders.
Perhaps this is a cynical view.
We shall soon see.
Richard A. Chapo, Esq.