Father Rich Warren sounded off Sunday on social media sites Reddit and Google+ about his upsetting morning: He had woken up to find that Google had suddenly, without warning, shut down his daughter’s e-mail account and blog. His daughter had used her Gmail to send e-mail to her grandparents, friends and classmates, and had started the Blogger blog as a class project.
Warren said he believed both accounts were disabled because his daughter was underage. Under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), Web sites collecting information from children under age 13 must take a number of steps to protect the child’s privacy. Warren says he’s not upset with Google for complying with COPPA, but how they went about it.
“Google could have made other choices — choices that are more customer friendly, more child friendly and more parent friendly. But they didn't,” he wrote on his Google+ account. “They've chosen to act apparently without ever considering how their actions might affect the people who use and rely on their services.”
Back in May, Google seemed to encourage children’s memories be shared on Gmail, YouTube, blogs and other services. In a viral video commercial dubbed “Dear Sophie,” a father is shown creating a Gmail account for his baby daughter, and then using it to send her photos, videos, and messages that chronicle her growing up, so that she can read and see them when she’s older:
The difference between “Dear Sophie” and Warren’s situation is that Sophie’s father did all the actual uploading of information, not his daughter. But how does Google know that? And how did Google realize, after several years of ignoring it, that Warren’s daughter was underage? Why, as Warren asked in his Google+ letter, did the company not inform him or ask his consent before disabling the accounts? And how can parents work to make sure this doesn’t happen to their children?
A Google Support page provides some answers, writing that accounts can get disabled if a child enters a birthday indicating they are not old enough to use Gmail. Warren’s daughter may have filled in that information if she joined Google+.
In one part of his letter to Google, Warren laments, “Remember, we're talking about letters from grandparents and friends. I can't even log in and back them up. They're just gone.”
That’s not necessarily true. Google writes on its support page that accounts can be re-enabled if a parent sends a government ID or credit card information over email or fax to prove their age. Accounts can be re-enabled after several days, or even go back up instantly.
Warren’s post sparked hundreds of comments, in which many Google users argued about whether the online giant should be at fault or not. Several parents, saying they’d had enough with Google’s attitude toward child usage, suggested using different, more kid-friendly e-mail providers altogether.
Update, 3:41 p.m.
A Google spokesman responded to request for comment on Warren’s letter, saying:
Asking for age information helps us provide features like age-appropriate settings to our users, who are interacting more every day with the people they know. Under our policies, Google doesn’t allow users who are under the age of 13 to have Google Accounts, unless they are using Google Apps for Education accounts through their school. This is similar to a lot of online services, as it's very complicated for many providers to offer better solutions for children that meet the relevant regulations. It's not as simple as just asking a parent for consent to let their child have an account — there are associated implications for data and privacy involved.
We know that this data is important to people, and we want to help by finding the right solutions. We're also working on designing special safety settings for teens.
Regarding the [“Dear Sophie”] video, the email address in the spot belongs to the Dad... The implied understanding is that the girl in the story does not have access to the account, but that she will have access to it “someday.”