Google takes the plunge

Word reaches me from the USA that Google is exploring how to admit under 13s to its services officially and legally. It has created a programme called “Family Link”. Seemingly it is only available at the moment if you live in America and it only works via or with Android devices. I’m not sure they will be able to hold to that line in the long run but it’s great that Google is trying to find a way through.

It has always been possible for US companies to allow under-13s to use their services but if they did so knowingly they first had to obtain parental consent. If they discovered anyone using their site or service who was in fact under 13 they simply closed their account and threw them off.

In other words rather than involve themselves in the potentially messy business of obtaining parental consent most of the big social media players simply said they wouldn’t allow anybody under 13 to join or use their service. This encouraged misrepresentation on a gigantic scale, with all the attendant difficulties that go with that.

It will be interesting to see how the Google experiment works out and absolutely riveting to see how and how soon the other big players will react. React they will.

Coming so close to the commencement of the GDPR in Europe I can see several potentially important spin-offs, all of them welcome and I guess the next time the Federal Trade Commission in the USA looks at the matter its attitude towards age verification and age limits might start to shift.

A colleague of mine remarked the other day that there were usually two complaints one heard about most new initiatives in the online child protection space. If a big company did something that was good and threatened to set a new standard this was unfair to small businesses because they couldn’t afford it. The other was that if a small business did something that was good that might set a new standard it could be dismissed because our volumes are too large to make this practical. It’s called a double bind and what it reminds us is that people in the child protection space have to focus on one simple thing; what is the right thing to do?  We are not advocates for small businesses, or large ones, although common sense and an idea of proportionality will always shade our expectations.

However, what this latest Google initiative demonstrates, yet again, is that the big players can pretty much do anything they want to in the technology space. The key ingredient is wanting. Well done Google for setting the ball rolling. Another genie is out of the bottle.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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